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Mehalik v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

March 20, 2014

JOHN P. MEHALIK, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

Cathy Bissoon, Judge

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

Cynthia Reed Eddy, United States Magistrate Judge

I. Introduction

Plaintiff John P. Mehalik, Jr. (“Mehalik”), brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”) [42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f]. The matter is presently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56.[1] For the reasons that follow, it is respectfully recommended that the Commissioner’s decision be vacated, and that the case be remanded for further consideration of Mehalik’s application for SSI benefits.

II. Procedural History

Mehalik protectively applied for SSI benefits on August 26, 2009, alleging that he had become “disabled” on July 31, 2009. R. at 124. Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Disability Determination (“Bureau”) denied the application on October 1, 2009. R. at 53. Mehalik responded on November 23, 2009, by filing a request for an administrative hearing. R. at 58-60. On March 15, 2011, Mehalik appeared before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael F. Colligan. R. at 30. Since Mehalik was not accompanied by an attorney or lay representative, the ALJ offered to postpone the hearing. R. at 32-33. Mehalik accepted the offer and proceeded to retain the services of an attorney. R. at 33.

The rescheduled hearing was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 5, 2011. R. at 35. Mehalik, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. at 38-47. Samuel E. Edelmann (“Edelmann”), an impartial vocational expert, provided testimony about the expectations of employers existing in the national economy. R. at 47-49. In a decision dated August 4, 2011, the ALJ determined that Mehalik was not “disabled” within the meaning of the Act. R. at 19-29.

On October 11, 2011, Mehalik sought administrative review of the ALJ’s decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. at 15-16. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on February 15, 2013, thereby making the ALJ’s decision the “final decision” of the Commissioner in this case. R. at 1. Mehalik commenced this action on April 2, 2013, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision. ECF Nos. 1-3. Mehalik and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on August 26, 2013, and September 26, 2013, respectively. ECF Nos. 10 & 12. Those motions are the subject of this report and recommendation, which is being filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).

III. Standard of Review

This Court’s review is plenary with respect to all questions of law. Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). With respect to factual issues, judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is “supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-1191 (3d Cir. 1986). Congress has clearly expressed its intention that “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). 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, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988)(internal quotation marks omitted). As long as the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, it cannot be set aside even if this Court “would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). “Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

In order to establish a disability under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate a “medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him [or her] from engaging in any ‘substantial gainful activity’ for a statutory twelve-month period.” Stunkard v. Secretary of Health & Human Services, 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A). A claimant is considered to be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity “only if his [or her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he [or she] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

To support his or her ultimate findings, an administrative law judge must do more than simply state factual conclusions. He or she must make specific findings of fact. Stewart v. Secretary of Health, Education & Welfare, 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir. 1983). The administrative law judge must consider all medical evidence contained in the record and provide adequate explanations for disregarding or rejecting evidence. Weir on Behalf of Weir v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 955, 961 (3d Cir. 1984); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Social Security Administration (“SSA”), acting pursuant to its legislatively-delegated rulemaking authority, has promulgated a five-step sequential evaluation process for the purpose of determining whether a claimant is “disabled” within the meaning of the Act. The United States Supreme Court has summarized this process by stating as follows:

If at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further. At the first step, the agency will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he is not working at a “substantial gainful activity.” [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). At step two, the SSA will find non-disability unless the claimant shows that he has a “severe impairment, ” defined as “any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits [the claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). At step three, the agency determines whether the impairment which enabled the claimant to survive step two is on the list of impairments presumed severe enough to render one disabled; if so, the claimant qualifies. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). If the claimant’s impairment is not on the list, the inquiry proceeds to step four, at which the SSA assesses whether the claimant can do his previous work; unless he shows that he cannot, he is determined not to be disabled. If the claimant survives the fourth stage, the fifth, and final, step requires the SSA to ...

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