United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
CHRISTOPHER C. CONNER, Chief District Judge.
The above-captioned action seeks review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff Jay Heckelmann's claim for social security disability insurance benefits.
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 Heckelmann met the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2010. Tr. 21, 23 and 166. In order to establish entitlement to disability insurance benefits Heckelmann was required to establish that he suffered from a disability on or before December 31, 2010. 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).
Heckelmann protectively filed his application for disability insurance benefits on November 30, 2009. Tr. 21, 95, 118-119, 127 and 166. On May 25, 2010, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied Heckelmann's application. Tr. 98-102. On June 29, 2010, Heckelmann filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 107. The request was granted and a hearing was held on May 16, 2011. Tr. 44-94. Heckelmann was represented by counsel at the hearing. Id . On July 19, 2011, the administrative law judge issued a decision denying Heckelmann's application. Tr. 21-30. The administrative law judge found that Heckelman failed to prove that he met the requirements of a listed impairment or suffered from work-preclusive functional limitations. Id . The administrative law judge concluded that Heckelmann had the ability to engage in a limited range of sedentary work. Id . On August 25, 2011, Heckelmann filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. Tr. 16-17. On November 28, 2012, the Appeals Council concluded that there was no basis upon which to grant Heckelmann's request for review. Tr. 1-4. Heckelmann filed the instant complaint in this court on January 24, 2013.
Heckelmann was born in the United States on April 19, 1978, and at all times relevant to this matter was considered a "younger individual" whose age would not significantly impact his ability to adjust to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563©; Tr. 48, 95, 118 and 127. Although Heckelmann had difficulties during his elementary and secondary education and withdrew from school in or about 1996 during the 11th grade, he can read, write, and converse in English and perform basic mathematical functions. Tr. 133, 172-220 and 325-342. His intellectual functioning was reported to be in the average range and after withdrawing from school his employment history included skilled work. Tr. 84 and 220.
Heckelmann's work history covers 10 years and at least 5 different employers. Tr. 120-122. The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Herring had limited earnings in the years 1996 through 1997 and 1999 through 2006. Id . The sum of Heckelmann's earnings during those 10 years is $129, 399.93. Id.
Heckelmann has past relevant employment as (1) a forklift operator which was described by a vocational expert as semi-skilled, medium work, (2) a truck repairmen which was described as skilled, medium work as usually performed in the economy but heavy work as actually performed by Heckelmann, (3) a welder described as skilled, medium work as usually performed and heavy work as actually performed, and (4) a diesel mechanic described as skilled, heavy work. Tr. 84.
At the administrative hearing, Heckelmann claimed that he was disabled because of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post-fusion, with lower back pain radiating down both legs to the feet. Tr. 23-25 and 26; Doc. 16, Plaintiff's Brief, p. 2. The impetus for the alleged disability was a motor vehicle accident which occurred on September 14, 2005, and the failure of spinal surgery that occurred on October 29, 2009. Tr. 58 and 68. In his application for disability insurance benefits and the present appeal Heckelmann claims that he became disabled on July 18, 2009, because of the pain and other symptoms associated with his lower back condition. Tr. 21, 118 and 134.
Heckelmann in documents filed with the Social Security Administration and during the administrative hearing reported totally disabling limitations. Tr. 53-83 and 153-160. The administrative law judge in setting Heckelmann's residual functional capacity at a limited range of sedentary work found that Heckelmann's claims were extreme and not credible. Tr. 28.
The relevant time period in this case for assessing whether substantial evidence supports the administrative law judge's decision is July 18, 2009, Heckelmann's alleged disability onset date, until December 31, 2010, when his insured status expired. Heckelmann was required to establish that he met the requirements of a listed impairment or suffered from physical functional impairments on or before December 31, 2010, which prevented him from engaging in full-time work.
I. 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.").
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 decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano , 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v. Califano , 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).
II. Sequential Evaluation Process
To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a ...