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Thornhill v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 2, 2014

ANITA THORNHILL, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

CYNTHIA REED EDDY, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Anita Thornhill ("Thornhill") 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 her 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, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment ( ECF No. 13 ) will be denied. Thornhill's motion for summary judgment ( ECF No. 10 ) will be denied to the extent that it requests an award of benefits, but granted to the extent that it seeks a vacation of the Commissioner's decision, and a remand for further proceedings. The decision of the Commissioner will be vacated, and the case will be remanded for further consideration of Thornhill's application for SSI benefits.

II. Procedural History

Thornhill initially applied for SSI benefits on February 11, 2008, alleging that she had become "disabled" on April 1, 2005. R. at 45. Pennsylvania's Bureau of Disability Determination ("Bureau") denied the claim on May 6, 2008. R. at 45. Thornhill responded on May 23, 2008, by filing a request for an administrative hearing. R. at 45. The hearing requested by Thornhill was held before Administrative Law Judge James Bukes on September 18, 2009. R. at 45. On October 22, 2009, Judge Bukes issued a decision denying Thornhill's application for benefits. R. at 42-58. After learning of the decision, Thornhill filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. The request for review was denied on March 24, 2010. R. at 59.

Thornhill protectively filed a new application for SSI benefits on June 9, 2010, alleging

the existence of a statutory disability beginning on January 1, 2005. R. at 93, 104. The Bureau denied the application on August 13, 2010. R. at 70. On September 2, 2010, Thornhill responded to the denial by requesting an administrative hearing. R. at 75-77. The requested hearing was held on September 8, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") David J. Kozma. R. at 29. Thornhill, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. at 31-40. Samuel E. Edelmann ("Edelmann"), an impartial vocational expert, provided testimony about the expectations of employers existing in the national economy. R. at 39-40. In a decision dated September 21, 2011, the ALJ determined that Thornhill was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. at 11-28.

On November 3, 2011, Thornhill sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. at 8. 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. Thornhill commenced this action on April 12, 2013, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. ECF Nos. 1-3. Thornhill and the Commissioner filed motions for summary judgment on August 5, 2013, and October 4, 2013, respectively. ECF Nos. 10 & 13. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), the parties have consented to have this matter resolved by a United States magistrate judge. ECF Nos. 9 & 15. The motions for summary judgment filed by the parties are the subject of this memorandum opinion.

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 ...

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