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Bell v. Colvin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 23, 2013

JEFFREY A. BELL, Plaintiff,


WILLIAM J. NEALON, District Judge.


The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Jeffrey A. Bell's claim for social security disability insurance benefits.

Bell protectively filed his application for disability insurance benefits on July 25, 2009. Tr. 51 and 141.[1] The application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination[2] on October 29, 2009. Tr. 53-57. On November 19, 2009, Bell requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 58-59. After over eleven months had passed, a hearing was held on October 28, 2010, before an administrative law judge. Tr. 19-50. On November 24, 2010, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Bell's application. Tr. 9-18. On February 3, 2011, Bell filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and after about 12 months the Appeals Council on February 1, 2012, concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Bell's request for review. Tr. 1-5 and 122-124.

Bell then filed a complaint in this court on April 5, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal[3] became ripe for disposition on October 5, 2012, when Bell elected not to file a reply brief.

Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is disabled and "insured, " that is, the individual has worked long enough and paid social security taxes. The last date that a claimant meets the requirements of being insured is commonly referred to as the "date last insured." It is undisputed that Bell meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2013. Tr. 9, 11 and 214.

Bell, who was born in the United States on July 25, 1964, graduated from high school in June, 1983, and can read, write, speak and understand the English language and perform basic mathematical functions such as paying bills, counting change, handling a savings account and using a checkbook and money orders. Tr. 23, 51, 125, 128, 175, 179, 185, 201 and 326. During his elementary and secondary schooling, Bell attended regular education classes. Tr. 185. After graduating from high school, Bell did not complete "any type of special job training, trade or vocational school" but did join the United States Marine Corps and served in that branch of the military from September 22, 1983 to September 1, 1987, when he was honorably discharged. Tr. 23, 138 and 326. Bell's position in the Marine Corps involved operating a personnel carrier and refueling operations. Tr. 23 and 190.

After being discharged from the military, Bell worked for a company that made stainless steel containers but after about a year was laid off because of lack of demand for the containers. Tr. 326. In January, 1990, Bell obtained a position as a corrections officer at Rockview State Correctional Institution located near Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and worked in that capacity until October 20, 2003, when he went on sick leave.[4] Tr. 167. In February, 2004, he received a state disability retirement because of mental health issues. Tr. 167 and 181. Bell reported that he received sick and vacation leave pay from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 2004 totaling $11, 816.73 and started to receive disability retirement in February, 2004, for depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder. Tr. 167.

After taking the state disability retirement, Bell from 2004 through 2008, had several relatively short-lived jobs, including with Shop-Vac Corporation, Lowes Home Centers, Inc., Topper Petroleum, Inc., Jacobs Masonry, and Capperella Brothers, Inc., and also obtained positions through temporary employment agencies. Tr. 159-160 and 167. The last position Bell held was as a warehouse person with Wolfe Furniture Enterprises, Inc., which commenced in 2008 and ended in April of 2009. Tr. 155, 165 and 171.

The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Bell had earnings in the years 1981 through 2009. Tr. 154-155. Bell's annual earnings range from a low of $153.74 in 1989 to a high of $52, 275.02 in 2003. Id . From 1993 through 2004, Bell's yearly earnings averaged $39, 548.07, and from 2005 through 2009 his earnings averaged $9576.84. Id . Bell's total earnings during those 29 years were $646, 651.48. Id.

Bell has past relevant employment as a prison guard which was described by a vocational expert as semi-skilled, light work and as a warehouse worker which was described as unskilled, heavy work.[5] Tr. 39.

Bell initially claimed that he became disabled on October 20, 2003, because of mental impairments. Tr. 138 and 180. The mental impairments alleged were anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. Tr. 180. The posttraumatic stress disorder purportedly was caused by Bell's extended work as a corrections officer in a maximum security housing unit where he observed suicides, attempted suicides, self mutilations, violent assaults and also was the victim of assaultive behavior by inmates, including having urine and feces thrown on him. Tr. 25-26, 180 and 324. At the administrative hearing Bell amended the alleged disability onset date to May 25, 2009, and also claimed that he was disabled as the result of chronic and frequent, uncontrolled diarrhea, requiring 12-15 bathroom visits per day.[6] Tr. 33, 36 and 267; Doc. 7, Plaintiff's Brief, p. 5. Bell alleged that the cause of the diarrhea was Celiac disease.[7] Tr. 46 and 48. Bell's girlfriend corroborated Bell's testimony regarding the frequency of his bathroom visits. Tr. 49. She indicated that he had frequent episodes of diarrhea and visited the bathroom 10-14 times per day and that when he goes places he takes a change of clothes with him just in case he has an accident. Tr. 48-49.

For the reasons set forth below, the court will remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

Standard of Review

When considering a social security appeal, the court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner. See Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security , 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin. , 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater , 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995). However, the court's review of the Commissioner's findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether those findings are supported by "substantial evidence." Id .; Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). Factual findings which are supported by substantial evidence must be upheld. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) ("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981) ("Findings of fact by the Secretary must ...

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