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Oberley v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 30, 2014

KIMBERLY SUE OBERLEY, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

TERRENCE F. McVERRY, District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Kimberly Sue Oberley ("Oberley") 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") which denied her applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f]. This case comes before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 8, 10). Each side filed a brief in support of its motion (ECF Nos. 9, 11), and the Commission filed a response to Plaintiff's motion (ECF No. 12). The "certified copy of the transcript of the record" has also been filed as a part of the Commissioner's answer to Oberley's complaint (ECF No. 6). Accordingly, the matter is ripe for disposition.

For the reasons that follow, the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied and Oberley's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 8) will be denied to the extent that she requests an award of benefits but granted insofar as she seeks a vacatur of the Commissioner's administrative decision and a remand for further proceedings.

II. Procedural History

Oberley protectively applied for benefits under Title II on March 21, 2011, alleging that she had become "disabled" on January 12, 2011. R. at 12, 130. Pennsylvania's Bureau of Disability Determination ("Bureau") denied the application on May 3, 2011. R. at 12, 64. Oberley responded on June 9, 2011, by filing a request for an administrative hearing. R. at 71-72. She applied for SSI benefits on July 6, 2011. R. at 12, 134, 144. On March 13, 2012, a hearing was held in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge Donald M. Graffius (the "ALJ"). R. at 26. Oberley was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. R. at 30-45. Timothy E. Mahler ("Mahler"), an impartial vocational expert, provided testimony about the expectations of employers existing in the national economy. R. at 45-51. On March 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision in which he determined that Oberley was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. at 12-21.

On April 27, 2012, Oberley sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. at 7-8. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on June 3, 2013, thereby making the ALJ's decision the "final decision" of the Commissioner in this case. R. at 1.

On July 12, 2013, Oberley commenced this action in which she seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. (ECF Nos. 1-3). These cross-motions for summary judgment then followed.[1] (ECF Nos. 8 & 10).

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 consider so-called "vocational factors" (the claimant's age, education, and past work experience), and to determine whether the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(f), 404.1560(c), 416.920(f), 416.960(c). Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25 (2003) (footnotes omitted). Factual findings pertaining to all steps of the sequential evaluation process are subject to judicial review under the "substantial evidence" standard. McCrea v. Commissioner of Social Security, 370 F.3d 357, 360-61 (3d Cir. 2004).

In an action in which review of an administrative determination is sought, the agency's decision cannot be affirmed on a ground other than that actually relied upon by the agency in making its decision. In Securities & Exchange Commission v. Chenery Corp., the Supreme Court explained:

When the case was first here, we emphasized a simple but fundamental rule of administrative law. That rule is to the effect that a reviewing court, in dealing with a determination or judgment which an administrative agency alone is authorized to make, must judge the propriety of such action solely by the grounds invoked by the agency. If those grounds are inadequate or improper, the court is powerless to affirm the administrative action by substituting what it considers to be a more adequate or proper basis. To do so would propel the court into the domain which Congress has set aside exclusively for the administrative agency.

332 U.S. 194, 196 (1947), The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has recognized the applicability of this rule in the Social Security disability context. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 44, n. 7 (3d Cir. 2001). Thus, the Court's review is limited to the four corners of the ALJ's decision. Cefalu v. Barnhart, 387 F.Supp.2d 486, 491 (W.D. Pa. 2005).

IV. The ALJ's Decision

In his decision, the ALJ determined that Oberley had not engaged in substantial gainful activity subsequent to her alleged onset date. R. at 14. Oberley was found to be suffering from "status post total left hip revision, " fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis of the left knee. R. at 14. These impairments were deemed to be "severe" under the Commissioner's regulations. R. at 14-15; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c). The ALJ concluded that Oberley's impairments did not meet or medically equal an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. at 15.

In accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545 and 416.945, the ALJ assessed Oberley's "residual functional capacity"[2] as follows:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except is limited to occasional walking and standing, must avoid kneeling, crawling and climbing, and must be afforded the option to ...

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