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Smith v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 12, 2015

APRIL ANN SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

Donetta W. Ambrose, Senior U.S. District Court Judge.

I. Synopsis

Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Social Security Benefits (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”). Plaintiff applied for benefits on May 6, 2011, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2004. ECF No. 8, 1. After Plaintiff’s application was denied initially, she filed a written request to have her application reviewed by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Id. at 2. On November 30, 2012, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ. Id. On March 22, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Id. After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. [7] (Plaintiff) and [9] (Defendant). Both parties filed briefs in support of their motions. ECF Nos. [8] (Plaintiff) and [10] Defendant. The issues are now ripe for review. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion as set forth below, I deny Plaintiff’s motion and grant Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

II. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner’s decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “[m]ore than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner’s findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). While the ALJ’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

To be eligible for social security benefits, a plaintiff must demonstrate that she cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(b). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant’s impairments prevent him from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. A Claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her previous employment (Steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (Step 5). Id.

A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

B. Consideration of Plaintiff’s Part-time Employment

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “misconstrued the facts of Plaintiff’s part-time work” to improperly diminish Plaintiff’s credibility, reject the findings of the medical professionals, and find that Plaintiff was capable of full-time work in the national economy. ECF No. 8, 12. Id. I disagree.

A claimant bears the initial burden of showing that she is disabled because she is unable to engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment. See Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979). Where a claimant is engaged in work activity, an ALJ will assess whether the current work constitutes substantial gainful activity by looking at the nature of the current work, how well claimant performs the work, and if it is done under any special conditions. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1573; 416.973. “Even if the work done [by a claimant] was not substantial gainful activity, it may show that [she is] able to do more work than [she] actually did.” Id. §§ 404.1571; 416.971; see also Soc. Sec. Reg. 83-33 (“A finding that the individual did not engage in [substantial gainful activity] during a particular period, however, does not answer the question of the individual’s ability to engage in [substantial gainful activity].”) (emphasis in original). Similarly, a claimant’s “work done under special conditions may show that [she has] the necessary skills and ability to work at the substantial gainful activity level.” Id. § 404.1573(c). In his consideration, an ALJ must assess all of the medical and vocational evidence of record. Id. §§ 404.1529(c)(3); 404.1571; 416.929(c)(3); 416.971; Soc. Sec. Reg. 83-33 (“The complete evidence may show that the individual’s impairment is less severe than alleged, or that he or she has the physical, mental and vocational capabilities necessary for [substantial gainful activity].”).

Although Plaintiff argues that the ALJ “misconstrued the facts of Plaintiff’s part-time work, ” I disagree. In determining the plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ did not look solely to Plaintiff’s part-time work activity. He considered her part-time employment in combination with Plaintiff’s own testimony and the medical evidence of record. ECF No. 6-2, 17 (“this work activity helps to demonstrate the capacity for work that I have included within the residual functional capacity”) & 22-25. In finding that Plaintiff’s current work was not substantial gainful activity, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff worked for a family friend, that the work was not performed in a competitive environment, that she liberally was permitted time off and breaks, and that her supervisor made allowances for her anxiety and other problems. ECF No. 6-2, 17 & 25. The ALJ then explained that although Plaintiff “is not earning at the [substantial gainful activity] level [] I believe her current work is indicative of the functional capacity and ability to perform low stress jobs as described in the RFC that I have determined.” ECF No. 6-2, 25. The ALJ further explained that in addition to Plaintiff’s part-time ...


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