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Paulus v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 16, 2014

MICHAEL D. PAULUS, Plaintiff.
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

ROBERT D. MARIANI, District Judge.

Background

The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Michael D. Paulus's claim for social security disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits.

On June 29, 2009, Paulus filed protectively[1] an application for disability insurance benefits and an application for supplemental security income benefits. Tr. 12, 68-69, 212-220 and 227.[2] The applications were initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination[3] on October 7, 2009. Tr. 71-79. On November 12, 2009, Paulus requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 12 and 80-81. After over 17 months had passed, a hearing was held on April 28, 2011. Tr. 12 and 25-66. Paulus was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id . On May 4, 2011, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Paulus's applications. Tr. 12-20. As will be explained in more detail infra the administrative law judge found that Paulus failed to prove that he met the requirements of a listed impairment or suffered from workpreclusive functional limitations. Id . Instead Paulus had the ability to perform a limited range of light work, [4] including as a conveyor line bakery worker and security system monitor. Id . On May 20, 2011, Paulus filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. Tr. 6-8. After the passage of 16 months, the Appeals Council on September 20, 2012, concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Paulus's request for review. Tr. 1-5. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.

Paulus then filed a complaint in this court on October 23, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal[5] became ripe for disposition on March 1, 2013, when Paulus filed a reply brief.

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 Paulus met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2009. Tr. 12, 14, 220 and 227. In order to establish entitlement to disability insurance benefits Paulus was required to establish that he 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).

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. Insured status is irrelevant in determining a claimant's eligibility for supplemental security income benefits.

Paulus was born in the United States on May 4, 1966, and at all times relevant to this matter was considered a "younger individual"[6] whose age would not seriously impact his ability to adjust to other work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1516(c) and 416.963(c). Tr. 41, 85-86, 155 and 159.

Although Paulus withdrew from school after commencing the 10th grade, he subsequently obtained a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) in 1989 and can read, write, speak and understand the English language and perform basic mathematical function such as paying bills, counting change, handling a savings account and using a checkbook and money orders. Tr. 35, 59, 230, 235 and 248. During his elementary and secondary schooling, Paulus attended regular education classes. Tr. 235. After obtaining a GED, Paulus did not complete "any type of special job training, trade or vocational school." Id.

Paulus's work history covers 24 years and at least 16 different employers. Tr. 221-224. The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Paulus had earnings in the years 1979 through 1980, 1983 through 1986, 1988 through 1999 and 2002 through 2007. Tr. 221. Paulus's annual earnings range from a low of $86.60 in 1979 to a high of $29, 816.02 in 2003. Id . Paulus's total earnings during those 24 years were $227, 549.26. Id.

Paulus has past relevant employment[7] as (1) a dishwasher which was described by a vocational expert as unskilled, medium work, (2) a tire changer which was described as semi-skilled, heavy work, (3) a garbage collector described as unskilled, heavy work, (4) an auto mechanic helper described as semi-skilled, heavy work, and (5) a landscaping laborer described as unskilled, medium work. Tr. 59.

In a document filed in 2009 with the Social Security Administration Paulus claimed that he became disabled on June 1, 2007, because of high blood pressure, a unspecified hairline fracture and a methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection. Tr. 71, 231 and 258. Paulus claimed that he was unable to stand or sit for long periods of time. Tr. 231. At the administrative hearing Paulus alleged that his primary disabling impairment was an orthopedic issue which arose on August 12, 2010, well-after his date last insured. Tr. 28-29. In his appeal brief, Paulus contends that he has had a history of high blood pressure, a chronic herniated cervical disc, degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, and a staph infection. Doc. 9, Plaintiff's Brief, p. 1. Paulus claims that his medical condition has gradually worsened over time. Id . Paulus does not contend that he is disabled as the result of psychiatric impairments. Tr. 231. Paulus's last employment was as a dishwasher in 2007 for Dukes Riverside Bar & Grill, Inc. Tr. 31 and 224. He stopped working on June 1, 2007, the date he claims he became disabled. Tr. 231.

During the initial claim process, Paulus was requested to provide information regarding his functional limitations. On September 17, 2009, Paulus indicated in a document entitled "Function Report - Adult" that he lives in a house with his wife; he has no problems with personal care other than cleaning painful areas in his groin and has to be careful when using the toilet;[8] he does not prepare his own meals; he vacuums a small bathroom rug twice a week; he needs no encouragement to engage in cleaning; he goes out everyday and has his morning coffee on the porch; he can go out alone; his hobbies include taking care of his cat, playing the guitar and reading; he does not need reminders to go places; he has no problems getting along with family, friends and neighbors; and he is able to pay bills, count change, handle a savings account and use a checkbook and money orders. Tr. 246-250. Paulus when given an opportunity to do so noted no problem with standing, reaching, talking, hearing, seeing, memory, concentration, understanding, following instructions, using his hands, and getting along with others. Tr. 250.

At the administrative hearing on April 28, 2011, Paulus testified as well as Robert Good, one of Paulus's neighbors. Tr. 25-66. Paulus testified that he lived in a house with his wife in Marysville, Pennsylvania. Tr. 34-36. He stated that he had cervical spinal surgery earlier that month and that he was still in a lot of pain. Tr. 36. Paulus reported weakness and "shaking"in his right upper extremity but that he had that condition since 1991. Tr. 39. Paulus testified that after the surgery he wore a cervical collar but that it was taken off on Monday, April 25, 2011. Tr. 36. He also reported that he uses a cane with his left hand to ambulate. Tr. 38-39. He stated he could make coffee for himself; he could go up and down stairs slowly; he enjoys reading; he has a driver's license but he does not drive; he claimed that he had difficulty washing and combing his hair as well as dressing; he admitted that his right hand was a little better since the surgery but he still had numbness and tingling in the right upper extremity; and he reported that he was right-handed but that he was getting better with his left hand. Tr. 44-47. Mr. Good corroborated a large portion of Paulus's testimony. Tr. 49-56. Mr, Good testified that before the surgery Paulus would do cleaning around the house but had to pay attention so that he would not fall down; and Paulus for a period of at least three months had his water turned off by the water company and that he allowed Paulus to haul water in gallon jugs from his house. Tr. 50-51. Mr. Good testified that Paulus did not perform yard work but when asked whether Paulus shoveled snow answered in the affirmative and also stated that Paulus when "he knows he's going to get a lot of snow then he's out there a couple time shoveling so it don't get so deep, you know... he does take care of the snow." Tr. 52-53.

The record reveals that Paulus has a history of smoking 1/2 - 1 pack cigarettes per day for 30 years. Paulus continued to smoke prior to and after his cervical spine surgery.[9]

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 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 ...


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