United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
JOHN E. JONES, III, District Judge.
The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Gipsy Perez's claim for social security supplemental security income benefits.
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.
Perez protectively filed her application for supplemental security income benefits on April 13, 2009. Tr. 25, 128-130 and 155. The application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination on August 12, 2009. Tr. 25 and 103-107. On October 15, 2009, Perez requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 108-110. After over 8 months had elapsed, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge on June 22, 2010. Tr. 65-100. Perez was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id . On July 23, 2010, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Perez's application. Tr. 25-32. As will be explained in more detail infra the administrative law judge, after considering the medical records and the testimony of Perez and a vocational expert, found that Perez could perform a limited range of unskilled, sedentary work,  specifically the jobs of ticket taker, video monitor and telephone receptionist. Tr. 31 and 96.
On August 31, 2010, Perez filed a request for review with the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, and on July 5, 2012, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Perez's request for review. Tr. 1-5, 17 and 184-185. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Perez then filed a complaint in this court on August 28, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal became ripe for disposition on February 1, 2013, when Perez filed a reply brief.
Perez was born in the United States on January 1, 1982, and at all times relevant to this matter was considered a "younger individual" whose age would not seriously impact her ability to adjust to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.963©. Tr. 101, 128 and 142.
Perez stated in documents filed with the Social Security Administration that she withdrew from school after completing the 11th grade in 1998. Tr. 153. Perez during her elementary and secondary school attended regular education classes although in the Spanish language. Tr. 91. Perez is able to speak English but is functionally illiterate with respect to reading and writing English. Tr. 75-76 and 147. Perez is, however, able to read names administrative law judge, Perez was 28 years old. Tr. 72. and perform basic mathematical functions such as paying bills, counting change, handling a savings account and using a checkbook and money orders. Tr. 76-77, 91-92 and 176. After withdrawing from high school, Perez did not complete "any type of special job training, trade or vocational school." Tr. 153. Perez's preferred language is Spanish, but she stated at the administrative hearing that she did not need an interpreter, and she testified in English. Tr. 68 and 147.
Perez has a very limited work and earnings history. Tr. 143 and 181. The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Perez had earnings in the years 2004 through 2007 and 2009. Tr. 131 and 143. Perez's reported annual earnings ranged from a low of $823.50 in 2007 to a high of $11, 369.00 in 2004. Id . Perez's total earnings during those 5 years were $16, 408.47. Id.
A vocational expert described Perez's past relevant employment history as follows: (1) a warehouse worker, unskilled, medium duty;(2) a fast food worker, unskilled, light duty; (3) a mail handler, unskilled, light duty; (4) a file clerk, semi-skilled, light duty; and (6) a handpacker, unskilled, medium duty. Tr. 30 and 88-89.
Perez claims that she became disabled on November 1, 2008, because of back problems and a curved spine. Tr. 147. Perez alleged that she could not walk "for long periods of time, " she could not stand or bend over, and she had problems sleeping because of the pain in her lower back which traveled to her feet. Tr. 148. Perez had spinal surgery in December, 2009, and at the administrative hearing claimed that the surgery did not relieve her pain and she suffers from lumbar radiculopathy, post laminectomy syndrome and lumbar degenerative disc disease. Tr. 70-71. Perez did not work during 2008, and worked part-time in 2009 until February 15th when she was "laid off." Tr. 148. Perez's earnings during 2009 did not rise to the substantial gainful activity level. Tr. 27.
The alleged disability onset date of November 1, 2008, has no impact on Perez's application for supplemental security income benefits because supplemental security income is a needs based program and benefits may not be paid for "any period that precedes the first month following the date on which an application is filed or, if later, the first month following the date all conditions for eligibility are met." See C.F.R. § 416.501. As stated above Perez's SSI application was filed on April 13, 2009. Consequently, Perez is not eligible for SSI benefits for any period prior to May 1, 2009.
During her testimony at the administrative hearing and in documents, including a "Function Report - Adult, " filed with the Social Security Administration, Perez indicated that she lives with her children ages 10 and 11; she has difficulty with some personal care such as dressing and combing her hair but she is able to care for her children including preparing them meals; she needs no special reminder to take care of grooming or to take medicines; she is able to shop for items in stores; her hobbies include reading and watching TV everyday; and she does not use a TENS unit, back brace, cane or other ambulatory device. Tr. 81-82 and 174-177. In the "Function Report - Adult" completed by Perez when asked to check items which are affected by her illnesses or conditions did not check the following: talking, hearing, seeing, memory, concentration, completing tasks, understanding, following instructions, using hands and getting along with others. Tr. 178.
For the reasons set forth below we will affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying Perez's application for supplemental security income benefits.
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 (11tth 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 ...