United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
TIFFANY A. ARMSTRONG, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
SYLVIA H. RAMBO, District Judge.
The captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying in part Plaintiff Tiffany A. Armstrong's claim for supplemental security income benefits.
Supplemental security income (SSI) is a federal income supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security taxes). It is designed to help aged, blind, or other disabled individuals who have little or no income.
Armstrong protectively filed her application for supplemental security income benefits on August 11, 2009. Tr. 30, 71, 148-158 and 182. Armstrong alleged that she was disabled as the result of the residual effects of a gunshot wound to the upper torso and depression. Tr. 55-63 and 165. The application was initially denied by the Bureau of Disability Determination on March 3, 2010. Tr. 30 and 74-77. On March 18, 2010, Armstrong requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. Tr. 30 and 87-88. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge on April 5, 2011, at which Armstrong was not represented. Tr. 30 and 46-67. On April 15, 2011, the administrative law judge issued a decision granting in part and denying in part Armstrong's application. Tr. 30-41. The administrative law judge found that Armstrong was disabled from June 14, 2009 through June 14, 2010, but that she medically improved on June 15, 2010, and consequently, was not entitled to benefits on and after that date. Tr. 36-41. On May 25, 2011, Armstrong filed a request for review with the Appeals Council. Tr. 24. The request for review was initially denied by the Appeals Council on August 26, 2011. Tr. 14-16. On November 23, 2011, Armstrong filed with the Appeals Council a request to vacate that denial because counsel who entered an appearance on behalf of Armstrong subsequent to the administrative law judge's decision was not provided with copies of the hearing transcript and exhibits or given an opportunity to submit a brief. Tr. 236-237. Subsequently, on May 10, 2012, counsel submitted a brief and, on December 18, 2012, the Appeals Council set aside its earlier decision and considered counsel's brief but ultimately found that there was no basis upon which to grant Armstrong's request for review. Tr. 1-4 and 241-246. Thus, the administrative law judge's decision stood as the final decision of the Commissioner.
Armstrong then filed a complaint in this court on February 18, 2013. Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the appeal became ripe for disposition on January 31, 2014, when Armstrong filed a reply brief.
Armstrong, who was born in the United States on September 12, 1978, graduated from high school in 1995 and can read, write, speak, and understand the English language. Tr. 54, 63, 164 and 169. During her elementary and secondary schooling, Armstrong attended regular education classes. Tr. 169.
Armstrong has a limited work and earnings history. Tr. 160 and 172. The records of the Social Security Administration reveal that Armstrong had earnings in the years 1994 through 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006. Tr. 160. Armstrong's annual earnings range from a low of $33.75 in 2002 to a high of $2, 121.22 in 2005. Id . Armstrong's total earnings during those 8 years were $6, 765.31. Id.
The administrative law judge found that Armstrong had no employment that rose to the level of substantial gainful activity, and consequently, no past relevant employment. Tr. 56. The vocational expert, however, identified Armstrong's past work as: (1) a cashier described as unskilled, light work; (2) a delivery person described as unskilled, medium work; (3) a waitress described as semiskilled, light work; (4) a cosmetologist described as skilled, light work; (5) a daycare worker described as semiskilled, light work; and (6) a housekeeper described as unskilled, light work. Tr. 63. Armstrong's last employment was for a company that delivered bags of ice to various businesses in Atlanta, Georgia. Tr. 54 and 166.
The record reveals that on the evening of June 14, 2009, Armstrong was offered a ride to her boyfriend's apartment located in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Tr. 787. During this ride, an unknown assailant riding in another motor vehicle fired multiple rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle at the vehicle in which Armstrong was a passenger in the back seat. Id . Bullets entered through the rear window of the motor vehicle striking Armstrong twice in the back between the left shoulder blade and the spine. Id . Armstrong was hospitalized for approximately two months and then was transferred to a nursing home where she received rehabilitation therapy. Tr. 247-249 and 754-770. She was discharged from the nursing home on September 18, 2009, and shortly thereafter moved to Pennsylvania to live with her mother. Id . Armstrong has not worked since the shooting. Tr. 165.
In a document entitled "Disability Report - Appeal" dated March 16, 2010, when asked to describe her condition, Armstrong stated that she had a great deal of weakness on her left side and could barely move her left arm or coordinate the movements of her fingers; and that she reported weakness in her left leg and difficulty with balance, shortness of breath with minimal exertion, an inability to stand for any length of time, muscle spasms and weakness in her knees and ankles, and that she suffered from back and chest pain. Tr. 224. Armstrong also reported problems with her gait, needing help with bathing, combing her hair, dressing and undressing, and getting in and out of bed. Tr. 228. At the administrative hearing on April 5, 2011, Armstrong reiterated many of these complaints. Tr. 58-63. Additionally, in response to a question from the administrative law judge, Armstrong stated that she was taking Percocet four times per day for pain which "makes her tired,  sleepy, drowsy the majority of the day." Tr. 64.
Armstrong's alleged disability onset date of June 14, 2009, has no impact on Armstrong's application for supplemental security income benefits because supplemental security income is a needs based program and benefits may not be paid for "any period that precedes the first month following the date on which an application is filed or, if later, the first month following the date all conditions for eligibility are met." See C.F.R. § 416.501. Consequently, Armstrong is not eligible for SSI benefits for any period prior to September 1, 2009.
Because there were legal errors committed during the administrative proceedings, as delineated below, the court will remand this case to the Commissioner for further consideration.
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 Soc. Sec. , 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Soc. 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."); Keefe v. Shalala , 71 F.3d 1060, 1062 (2d Cir. 1995); Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001); Martin v. Sullivan , 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 & 1529 n.11 (11th Cir. 1990).
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 Soc. Sec. , 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 Comm'n , 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).
Another critical requirement is that the Commissioner adequately develop the record. Shaw v. Chater , 221 F.3d 126, 131 (2d Cir. 2000)("The ALJ has an obligation to develop the record in light of the non-adversarial nature of benefits proceedings, regardless of whether the claimant is represented by counsel."); Rutherford v. Barnhart , 399 F.3d 546, 557 (3d Cir. 2005); Fraction v. Bowen , 787 F.2d 451, 454 (8th Cir. 1986); Reed v. Massanari , 270 F.3d 838, 841 (9th Cir. 2001); Smith v. Apfel , 231 F.3d 433. 437 (7th Cir. 2000); see also Sims v. Apfel , 530 U.S. 103, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2085 (2000)("It is the ALJ's duty to investigate the facts and develop the arguments both for and against granting benefits[.]"). If the record is not adequately developed, remand for further proceedings is appropriate. Id.
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 continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 432(d)(1)(A). Furthermore,
[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), "work which exists ...