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Carayiannas v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 12, 2014



YVETTE KANE, District Judge.


The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Athansai Carayiannas's claim for social security disability insurance 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 Carayiannas met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2008. Tr. 13, 15, 30 and 104.[1] In order to establish entitlement to disability insurance benefits Carayiannas 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).

Carayiannas protectively filed her application for disability insurance benefits on January 12, 2009, over six months after the date last insured. Tr. 101-103 and 124. The application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination[2] on July 15, 2009. Tr. 79-82. On August 13, 2009, Carayiannas requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 13 and 83. After about 15 months had passed, a hearing was held on November 2, 2010. Tr. 25-50. Carayiannas was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id . On November 23, 2010, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Carayiannas's application. Tr. 13-21. As will be explained in more detail infra the administrative law judge found that Carayiannas failed to prove that she met the requirements of a listed impairment or suffered from work-preclusive functional limitations on or before the date last insured. Tr. 16 and 18-20. On December 29, 2010, Carayiannas filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and after almost 18 months had elapsed the Appeals Council on June 4, 2012, concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Carayiannas's request for review. Tr. 1-3 and 7-9. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Carayiannas then filed a complaint in this court on July 2, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal[3] became ripe for disposition on December 24, 2012, when Carayiannas elected not to file a reply brief.

Carayiannas, who was born in the United States on May 6, 1960, graduated from high school in 1978 and can read, write, speak and understand the English language and perform basic mathematical functions such as counting change and using a checkbook and money orders. Tr. 101-102, 115, 121 and 166. During her elementary and secondary schooling, Carayiannas attended regular education classes. Tr. 122. After graduating from high school, Carayiannas did not complete "any type of special job training, trade or vocational school." Id.

Carayiannas's work history covers 22 years and at least 6 different employers. Tr. 105-114. The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Carayiannas had earnings in the years 1978, 1981 through 1989, 1996 through 2003, and 2005 through 2009. Tr. 105-107. Carayiannas's annual earnings range from a low of $412.00 in 2005 to a high of $25, 555.00 in 1987. Id . Carayiannas's total earnings during those 22 years were $134, 402.53. Id.

Carayiannas claims that she became disabled on February 26, 2004, because of osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis which resulted in a "crooked" back and swelling in her hands, fingers and toes. Tr. 31 and 116. She does not contend that she is disabled as the result of psychiatric impairments. Id.

Carayiannas has past relevant employment as a bartender which was described as semi-skilled, light work by a vocational expert.[4] Tr. 46. Carayiannas was working as a bartender, part-time, when she applied for disability insurance benefits and at the time of the administrative hearing. Tr. 35, 106 and 117.

To be considered past relevant employment, the work must, inter alia, amount to substantial gainful activity. Pursuant to Federal Regulations a person's earnings have to rise to a certain level to be considered substantial gainful activity. The ALJ found that Carayiannas's work after February 26, 2004, could not be considered past relevant work because it was not performed at the substantial gainful activity level. Tr. 15. The relevant time period in this case for assessing whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision is February 26, 2004, Carayiannas's alleged disability onset date, until June 30, 2008, when her insured status expired. Carayiannas was required to establish that she met the requirements of a listed impairment or suffered from physical functional impairments on or before June 30, 2008, which prevented her from engaging in full-time work.

For the reasons set forth below we will affirm the decision of 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 ...

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