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Horne v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 14, 2014

JAMES JOSEPH HORNE, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MARK R. HORNAK, District Judge.

Plaintiff James Joseph Home ("Mr. Home") brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), who denied his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403; 1381-1383(f), respectively.

I. BACKGROUND AND FACTS

Mr. Home was born on August 6, 1985. ECF No. 10-2 at 43. He completed one year of education at Pittsburgh Technical Institute and has no vocational or specialized training. Id. at 44; ECF No. 10-8 at 59. Mr. Home worked as a prep cook at various restaurants from 2002 to April 2008. ECF No. 10-2 at 45-47. He suspects that he was terminated from his most recent job at a casino due to physical limitations. Id. at 47-48.

Mr. Home alleges disability as of April 1, 2008 due to bilateral slipped capital femoral epiphyses (a degenerative condition in his hips), severe chronic arthritis, degenerative joint disease, obesity, migraine headaches, hypertension, and pain in his lower back, knees, and hips. ECF No. 13 at 2. The record reflects that he has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since alleging disability in April 2008. ECF No. 10-2 at 21.

Mr. Home initially filed applications for DIB and SSI on December 3, 2009, in which he claimed total disability since April 1, 2008. Id. at 19. His claims were denied by the State Agency on March 30, 2010. Id. An administrative hearing was held on June 30, 2011 before Administrative Law Judge Guy Koster ("ALJ"). Id. Mr. Home was not represented by counsel at the hearing. Id. After being advised of his right to representation, he chose to proceed without an attorney and testified. Id. Mr. Home's wife, Rebecca, and Samuel Edelman, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also testified at the hearing. Id.

On August 19, 2011, the ALJ rendered a decision unfavorable to Plaintiff in which the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not under a disability, as defined by the Act, at any time from the alleged onset date of April 1, 2008, through the date of the decision. Id. at 28. The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on January 2, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request to review the decision of the ALJ. Id. at 2-4.

On February 13, 2013, Mr. Home filed his Complaint in this Court, seeking judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. ECF No. 3. The parties have filed Motions for Summary Judgment, ECF Nos. 12 and 17, and respective Briefs in Support, ECF Nos. 13 and 18. Mr. Home has filed a response to the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. ECF No. 19. He contends that the ALJ erred in numerous respects by failing to find that his condition met or equaled one of the Listed Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1, by failing to call a medical expert to testify as to the issue of equivalency to a Listed Impairment, by misconstruing the opinion of the State Agency medical adjudicator, and by failing to adequately develop the record in several ways. The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed, as it is supported by substantial evidence. The Court concludes that the ALJ failed to adequately develop the record and erred in determining Mr. Home's RFC, and will therefore vacate the ALJ's decision and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

II. ST ANDARD OF REVIEW

The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Thomas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 625 F.3d 798 (3d Cir. 2010).

In situations where a claimant files concurrent applications for SSI and DIB, courts have consistently addressed the issue of a claimant's disability in terms of meeting a single disability standard under the Act. See Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 119 n.l (3d Cir. 2002) ("This test [whether a person is disabled for purposes of qualifying for SSI] is the same as that for determining whether a person is disabled for purposes of receiving social security disability benefits [DIB]. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 with § 404.1520."); Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 315-16 (3d Cir. 2000) (stating claimants' burden of proving disability is the same for both DIB and SSI).

When resolving the issue of whether an adult claimant is or is not disabled, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a Listed Impairment, (4) can return to his or her past relevant work, and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work. See 42 U.S.C. § 404.1520; Newell v. Comm'r o/Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 118-19 (3d Cir. 2000)).

To qualify for disability benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal citation omitted); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1) (1982). This may be done in two ways:

(1) by introducing medical evidence that the claimant is disabled per se because he or she suffers from one or more of a number of serious impairments delineated in 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1983); Newell, 347 F.3d at 545-46; Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004); or,

(2) in the event that claimant suffers from a less severe impairment, by demonstrating that he or she is nevertheless unable to engage in "any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy...." ...


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