United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
MARK R. HORNAK, District Judge.
Plaintiff Joshua Hazlett ("Mr. Hazlett") brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383 (c), for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), who found that he was not eligible for supplemental social security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(f).
Mr. Hazlett was born on September 28, 1991. ECF No. 6-2 at 18. He dropped out of school before completing the 11th grade and has no past relevant work experience. Id. at 23, 26. He alleges disability as of December 1, 2009 due to a number of mental impairments, including Asperger's syndrome ("Asperger's"), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), obsessive-compulsive disorder ("OCD"), and various manifestations of depression and anxiety. The record reflects that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since alleging disability in December 2009.
B. Procedural History
Plaintiff initially filed an application for childhood SSI through his mother on July 26, 1995, in which he claimed total disability since July 1, 1995. ECF No. 6-3 at 65-69. On August 18, 1995, a state agency disability examiner determined that Mr. Hazlett's ADHD was functionally equal to Listing 12.11 under the rules for determining disability in children and granted him SSI benefits based on that disability. ECF No. 6-2 at 50-52. Mr. Hazlett continued to receive such benefits until December 14, 2009, when the Commissioner determined that as of December 1, 2009 (following Mr. Hazlett's 18th birthday), pursuant to the rules for determining disability in adults, he was no longer disabled. Id. at 15. A state agency disability hearing officer upheld that determination, ECF No. 6-3 at 42-47, and Mr. Hazlett filed a written request for a hearing on January 28, 2011. ECF No. 6-2 at 15.
The administrative hearing was held on October 19, 2011 before Administrative Law Judge David Brash ("ALJ"). Id. Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and he and his mother testified at the hearing. Id. Fred Monaco, an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), also testified at the hearing. Id. On November 14, 2011, the ALJ rendered a decision unfavorable to Mr. Hazlett, finding that he retained the ability to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with a number of nonexertional limitations and therefore was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. Id. at 15-27.
The ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner on February 20, 2013, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request to review the decision of the ALJ Id. at 5-7. On April 15, 2013, Mr. Hazlett filed his Complaint in this Court, seeking judicial review of the decision of the ALJ ECF No.3. The parties have filed cross-Motions for Summary Judgment, ECF Nos. 10 and 12, and briefs in support. ECF Nos. 11 and 13. Mr. Hazlett has also filed a response to the Commissioner's brief. ECF No. 14. He contends that the ALJ erred in four respects by failing to find that his condition met or equaled one of the Listed Impairments found at 20 C.F.R. § 404, subpt. P, app. 1, by improperly weighing and misinterpreting the medical opinions in the record, by erroneously determining his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), and in disregarding the testimony of the VE and relying on an incomplete hypothetical question. The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed, as it is supported by substantial evidence. The Court agrees with the Commissioner and will therefore grant the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Commissioner and deny the Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the Plaintiff.
III. LEGAL ANALYSIS
A. Standard of Review
The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). The United States Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Thomas v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 625 F.3d 798, 800 (3d Cir. 2010).
In situations where a claimant files concurrent applications for SSI and DIB, courts have consistently addressed the issue of a claimant's disability in terms of meeting a single disability standard under the Act. See Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 119 n.1 (3d. Cir. 2002) ("This test [whether a person is disabled for purposes of qualifying for SSI] is the same as that for determining whether a person is disabled for purposes of receiving social security disability benefits [DIB]. Compare 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 with § 404.1520."); Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 n.3 (1990) (holding that regulations implementing the Title II [DBI] standard, and those implementing the Title XVI [SSI] standard are the same in all relevant aspects.); Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 315-16 (3d. Cir. 2000) (stating claimants burden of proving disability is the same for both DIB and SSI).
When resolving the Issue of whether an adult claimant is or is not disabled, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 (1995). This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to his or her past relevant work, and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work. See 42 U.S.C. § 404.1520; Newell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 545-46 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 118-19 (3d Cir. 2000)).
To qualify for disability benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal citation omitted); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1) (1982). This may be done in two ways:
(1) by introducing medical evidence that the claimant is disabled per se because he or she suffers from one or more of a number of serious impairments delineated in 20 C.F.R. § 404 subpt. P, app. 1. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1983); Newell, 347 F.3d at 545-46; Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004); or,
(2) in the event that claimant suffers from a less severe impairment, by demonstrating that he or she is nevertheless unable to engage in "any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy...." ...