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Schaeffer v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 22, 2014

CASSANDRA SCHAEFFER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

LISA PUPO LENIHAN, Magistrate Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Cassandra Schaeffer ("Schaeffer") 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") denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act") [42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f]. The matter is presently before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by the parties pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. ECF Nos. 11 & 13. For the reasons that follow, Schaeffer's motion for summary judgment ( ECF No. 11 ) will be denied, the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment ( ECF No. 13 ) will be granted, and the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.

II. Procedural History

Schaeffer protectively applied for disability insurance benefits and SSI benefits under Titles II [42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433] and XVI of the Act on December 21, 2010, alleging that she had become "disabled" on January 21, 1999. R. at 24, 170, 172. Ten days later, Pennsylvania's Bureau of Disability Determination ("Bureau") denied the application for disability insurance benefits on the ground that Schaeffer was not insured for benefits under Title II. R. at 87. The Bureau denied the application for SSI benefits on March 9, 2011. R. at 91. Schaeffer responded on March 23, 2011, by filing a request for an administrative hearing.[1] R. at 97-99. On June 4, 2012, a hearing was held in Erie, Pennsylvania, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") James J. Pileggi. R. at 41. Schaeffer, who was represented by counsel, appeared and testified at the hearing. R. at 46-63. Frances N. Kinley ("Kinley"), an impartial vocational expert, provided testimony about the expectations of employers existing in the national economy. R. at 63-66. In a decision dated June 15, 2012, the ALJ determined that Schaeffer was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. R. at 24-35.

On June 26, 2012, Schaeffer sought administrative review of the ALJ's decision by filing a request for review with the Appeals Council. R. at 18-20. The Appeals Council denied the request for review on September 26, 2013, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner in this case. R. at 5. Schaeffer commenced this action on November 19, 2013, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's decision. ECF No. 1. Schaeffer and the Commissioner respectively moved for summary judgment on March 11, 2014, and April 24, 2014.[2] ECF Nos. 11 & 13. In accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c)(1), the parties have given their consent to have this matter adjudicated by a United States Magistrate Judge. ECF No. 10. The motions for summary judgment filed by the parties are ripe for disposition and will be resolved in this memorandum opinion.

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, 124 S.Ct. 376, 157 L.Ed.2d 333 (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, 360-361 (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., 332 U.S. ...


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