United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania
The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Gregory Shiner's claim for social security disability insurance benefits.
Shiner protectively filed his application for disability insurance benefits on March 23, 2009. Tr. 12, 77, 100-107 and 123. The application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination on July 29, 2009. Tr.79-83.
On August 7, 2009, Shiner requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 84-85. After about 13 months had passed, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge on September 14, 2010. Tr. 40-76. On October 21, 2010, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Shiner's application. Tr. 12-22. As will be explained in more detail, infra., the administrative law judge found that Shiner failed to prove that he met the requirements of a listed impairment or suffered from work-preclusive functional limitations. Id. Instead, Shiner had the ability to perform a limited range of sedentary to light work,  including as a ticket taker. Tr. 21. On November 12, 2010, Shiner filed a request for review with the Appeals Council and on July 16, 2012, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Shiner's request for review. Tr. 1-8 and 190-191. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Shiner then filed a complaint in this court on August 23, 2012. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal became ripe for disposition on March 21, 2013, when Shiner elected not to file 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 Shiner met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2013. Tr. 12, 14, 107 and 154.
Shiner, who was born in the United States on December 11, 1959, graduated from high school in 1978 and can read, write, speak and understand the English language. Tr. 140 and 269. During his elementary and middle school education, Shiner attended regular education classes and during high school he attended college preparatory classes and received average to above average grades. Tr. 151 and 269. In the mid-1990s while working as a paste-up artist for The Charlotte Observer, Shiner pursued an Associates degree in printing at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Tr. 124 and 269. Shiner did not graduate from CPCC but stopped 16 credits short of obtaining a degree. Id.
Shiner's work history covers more than 31 years and at least 18 different employers. Tr. 108-119. The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Shiner had earnings in the years 1978 through 2008. Tr. 108. Shiner's annual earnings range from a low of $999.93 in 1979 to a high of $37, 309.82 in 2002. Id. Shiner's total earnings during those 31 years were $468, 095.57. Id.
Shiner has past relevant employment as (1) a convenience store manager which was described by a vocational expert as skilled, light work as usually performed in the economy, but medium work as actually performed by Shiner; (2) a costing manager at a manufacturing plant, which was described as semi-skilled, light work as normally performed in the economy, but heavy work as actually performed by Shiner; (3) a door-to-door sales representative for a cable company, which was described as unskilled, light work; (4) a sales associate for a hardware store and a paint store, both of which were described as semiskilled, medium work positions; and (5) a paste-up artist for a newspaper, which was described as unskilled, light work. Tr. 68 and 124-134.
Shiner claims that he became disabled and unable to engage in competitive full-time work on December 14, 2008, because of both physical and mental disorders. Tr. 100 and 140-141. In the brief submitted in support of the present appeal, Shiner stated that the disabling disorders were "a right paracentral disc herniation at the C5-C6 level with right sided spinal canal stenosis, degenerative disc disease,  post-concussion syndrome and major depressive disorder." Doc. 10, Plaintiff's Brief, p. 2. The impetus for Shiner's disabling disorders was a motor vehicle accident which occurred on December 14, 2008. Tr. 701. On that date, Shiner contends that while stopped at a red light, he was rear-ended by another vehicle. Id. Shiner claims that he has chronic headaches, neck stiffness and pain, mid and low back pain, spasms in his mid-back, shooting pain down the backs of his legs, right hand numbness, weakness in and lack of control of his hands, difficulty holding a pen and using a keyboard, difficulty sitting or standing for any length of time, balance issues, numb feet, blurry vision, lack of focus, poor short term memory, problems counting, trouble communicating, and depression. Tr. 50-59, 63-67 and 140.
Although Shiner testified at the administrative hearing that he had difficulty with counting numbers, he submitted a document to the Social Security Administration on May 16, 2009, in which he stated that he could pay bills, count change, handle a savings account and use a checkbook and money orders. Tr. 74 and 161. That document which was completed by Shiner was handwritten, 8-pages in length and legible. Tr 158-165.
At the administrative hearing on September 14, 2010, Shiner testified that he was working part-time, 20 hours per week as a license photo technician for the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles, which position was described by a vocational expert as unskilled, sedentary work. Tr. 53-55 and 68.
For the reasons set forth below, we will affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying Shiner's application for disability insurance benefits.
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."); Cotterv. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981)("Findings of fact by the Secretary must be accepted as conclusive ...