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Graham v. Colvin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 16, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


JOY FLOWERS CONTI, Chief District Judge.


Melissa Marie Graham ("Graham" or "Plaintiff") appeals from the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner" or "Defendant") denying her claim for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1318-1383. Graham and the Commissioner filed cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 9, 11). These motions were referred to a magistrate judge who filed a Report and Recommendation (ECF No. 13), recommending that the court grant the motion filed by Defendant and deny the motion filed by Plaintiff. Plaintiff filed objections (ECF No. 14), contending, among other things, that the magistrate judge erred in finding that substantial evidence supported the Commissioner's conclusion that Plaintiff failed to meet the Listing at 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app.1 § 12.05C (the "12.05C Listing"). Despite the court's order to do so, the Commissioner failed to respond to these objections. (ECF Order dated August 20, 2013). After de novo review of the entire record in this matter, together with the Report and Recommendation, and the objections thereto, the court declines to adopt the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation, finding that application of the law to these facts established that Plaintiff meets the requirements of the 12.05C Listing, and is entitled to supplemental security income benefits. Accordingly, summary judgment will be granted in Plaintiff's favor, reversing the underlying decision of the administrative law judge (the "ALJ"). The case will be remanded for the calculation and award of benefits.

Procedural History and Factual Background

On July 20, 2009, the Graham filed an application for supplemental security income benefits, alleging an onset date of September 1, 2008. (ECF No. 6-2 at 13). The claim was denied initially on October 14, 2009. (Id.). On December 1, 2009, Graham, who was then twenty-one years old, requested a hearing which took place on March 1, 2011, before the ALJ in Seven Fields, Pennsylvania. (Id. at 28). Graham, her husband, her grandmother, and a vocational expert testified. (Id. 29-30). At the time of the hearing, Graham, who was represented by counsel, was twenty-two years old, and had earned a GED. (Id. at 30, 33, 35). She had not engaged in prior relevant work meeting the definition of substantial gainful activity. (Id. at 37).[1] When asked what prevented her from working, Graham stated, "I have really bad back pain that goes into my like left hip, into my leg. I have a hard time bending for a long period of time. I can't stand for a long time. I start getting pains really bad. And walking long, I can't walk long. It hurts." (Id. at 38). Graham also testified that she suffered from asthma and that a learning disability interfered "[a] little bit" with her ability to work. (Id. at 39).

Asked to describe her daily activities, Graham stated that she was able to alternate light housework with rest. Sometimes she would try to cook lunch with her husband's help, play with her four-year-old son, although she could not lift him, and then sit in a recliner and watch television. (Id. at 43). Graham stated that she liked to shop, but could not walk far. She could use a computer, occasionally eat out, and take her son to the movie, sometimes having to stand while watching. (Id. at 43-44). She was able to push a grocery cart without too many items in it. (Id. at 45). She enjoyed reading young adult fiction, and, sometimes, a newspaper. (Id. at 46). She could sit or stand comfortably for about twenty minutes, and was capable of lifting about five pounds. (Id. at 46-47). Graham testified that she got along with others, and had no problems with memory or concentration. (Id. at 48).

A psychologist, Clarence Anderson ("Anderson"), evaluated Graham on October 1, 2009. (ECF No. 6-10 at 9). Graham, who was born on May 3, 1988, was twenty-one years old at the time of the evaluation. (Id.). Anderson found Graham had a valid verbal IQ score of 69, a performance IQ score of 79 and a full scale IQ score of 72. (ECF No. 6-10 at 11). The psychologist noted that IQ scores in the 70-79 range are borderline. (Id.).

On March 15, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Graham was not entitled to supplemental security income benefits. (ECF No. 6-2 at 10). On November 16, 2012, the Appeals Council denied her request for review, making the ALJ's opinion the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 2).

In his decision, the ALJ applied the sequential five-step analysis articulated at 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.[2] At the first step, the ALJ found that Graham had not engaged in substantial gainful employment after the date of her application for benefits. (ECF No. 6-2 at 15). At step two, he concluded that Graham suffered from severe impairments including borderline mental ability, asthma, scoliosis, and chronic sacroliitis, or inflammation of the left sacroiliac joint. (Id.).

At step three, the ALJ assessed whether Graham's impairments met or equaled the 12.05C Listing addressing mental retardation, found at 20 C.F.R. part 404, subpart P, and Appendix 1. (Id. at 16-18). If a claimant establishes the existence of a listed impairment, or a combination of impairments medically equivalent to a Listing, no further analysis is required; disability is presumed, and benefits are awarded. 20 C.F.R. 1520(d). It is the claimant's burden to show that she meets or medically equals an impairment in the Listings. Evans v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs. , 820 F.2d 161, 164 (6th Cir. 1987). The ALJ concluded, among other things, that Graham failed to establish a disability within the meaning of the 12.05C Listing and she has the residual functional capacity to perform other work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy (ECF No. 6-2 at 23-24). This timely appeal followed.

Legal Standard

A claimant requesting benefits under the Act is entitled to judicial review of the Commissioner's denial. 42 U.S.C. §405(g). The court will affirm the Commissioner's adoption of an administrative law judge's finding if it is supported by substantial evidence. Id .; Podedworny v. Harris , 745 F.2d 210, 217 (3d Cir. 1984). "Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'" Ventura v. Shalala , 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Under this standard, a court is not permitted to weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for that of the fact-finder. Id .; Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) (reviewing whether the administrative law judge's findings "are supported by substantial evidence" regardless whether the court would have differently decided the factual inquiry).

A district court's review of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation with respect to a summary judgment motion is de novo. 28 U.S.C. § ...

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