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Schwartz v. Colvin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 23, 2014

DOROTHY M. SCHWARTZ, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

YVETTE KANE, District Judge.

Background

The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") which was only partially favorable to Plaintiff Dorothy M. Schwartz's claim for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

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 Schwartz met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2009. Tr. 18, 20 and 68.[1] In order to establish entitlement to disability insurance benefits Schwartz was required to establish that she suffered from a disability on or before that date. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1)(B); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131(a)(2008); see Matullo v. Bowen , 926 F.2d 240, 244 (3d Cir. 1990).

Supplemental security income is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind or other disabled individuals who have little or no income. Insured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant's eligibility for supplemental security income benefits.

Schwartz was born on June 14, 1980. Tr. 24, 60-61 and 73. She claims that she became disabled on June 14, 2004, because of several psychiatric disorders. Tr. 40. She does not contend that she is disabled as the result of physical impairments.

Schwartz graduated from high school and has past relevant work as a cashier, sales associated and stock clerk for Boscov's Department Store; a childcare aide; a cashier and attendant at an amusement park; and a dishwasher and salad maker at a restaurant. Tr. 97 and 722. All of Schwartz's prior relevant employment is classified as unskilled, light-duty work. Tr. 722.[2]

The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Schwartz had earnings in the years 1997 through 2004. Tr. 69. Schwartz's reported annual earnings ranged from a low of $73.53 in 1997 to a high of $11, 496.70 in 2003. Id . Schwartz's total earnings during those 8 years were $42, 248.68. Id . Schwartz has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since June 14, 2004, the alleged onset date of her disability. Tr. 20.

On March 8, 2005, Schwartz filed protectively[3] an application for disability insurance benefits and an application for supplemental security income benefits. Tr. 60-67. The applications were initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination[4] on September 14, 2005. Tr. 40-44. On October 19, 2005, Schwartz requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 45. On November 15, 2007, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge. Tr. 709-728.[5] On February 7, 2008, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Schwartz's applications for benefits. Tr. 18-25.[6] On March 7, 2008, Schwartz filed a request for review of the decision with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration. Tr. 11 and 14. On December 4, 2009, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Schwartz's request for review. Tr. 5-8. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Schwartz then filed on January 25, 2010, a complaint in this court requesting that we reverse the decision of the Commissioner denying her disability and supplemental security income benefits. Schwartz v. Astrue, Civil No. 10-00173 (M.D. Pa)(Muir, J.). On September 1, 2010, that case was remanded by Judge Muir to the Commissioner for further proceedings primarily because the administrative law judge did not make a determination as to whether or not several psychiatric conditions were medically determinable impairments.[7] Id., slip op. at 10-11 (M.D. Pa. September 1, 2010)(Doc. 14).

A second hearing before the same administrative law judge was held on February 11, 2011. Tr. 891-935. At the administrative hearing Schwartz, a psychologist and a vocational expert testified. Id . Schwartz was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id . On March 11, 2011, the administrative law judge issued a decision which in part granted Schwartz's applications for benefits. Tr. 752-769. The administrative law judge found that Schwartz was under a disability as the result of bipolar depression[8] from June 14, 2004, through February 10, 2011, but that medical improvement occurred on February 11, 2011, which disentitled her to benefits on and after that date. Tr. 761.

On March 31, 2011, Schwartz filed a request for review with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and after about 14 months had elapsed the Appeals Council on May 17, 2012, concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Schwartz's request for review. Tr. 729-732 and 743-748. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Schwartz then filed a complaint in this court on June 6, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal[9] became ripe for disposition on December 5, 2012, when Schwartz filed a reply brief.

For the reasons set forth below we will affirm the Commissioner.

Standard of Review

When considering a social security appeal, we have 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, our 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 be accepted as conclusive by a reviewing court if supported by substantial evidence."); Keefe v. Shalala , 71 F.3d 1060, 1062 (2d Cir. 1995); Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001); Martin v. Sullivan , 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 & 1529 n.11 (11th Cir. 1990).

Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B. , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance. Brown , 845 F.2d at 1213. In an adequately developed factual record substantial evidence may be "something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo v. Federal Maritime Commission , 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, " Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706, and "must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B. , 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the Commissioner ignores countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason , 994 F.2d at 1064. The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson , 529 F.3d at 203; Cotter , 642 F.2d at 706-707. Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).

Sequential Evaluation Process

To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 432(d)(1)(A). Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), "work which exists ...

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