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Pepper v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 3, 2019

DONALD JAMES PEPPER, III, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [1] COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Donetta W. Ambrose, United States Senior District Judge.

         Pending before the Court are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 12 and 15). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 13 and 16). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 12) and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 15).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying an application for supplemental security income pursuant to the Social Security Act. The application was filed on behalf of Plaintiff, who was at that time under the age of 18. On March 7, 2017, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Jeffrey P. La Vicka, held a hearing. (ECF No. 10-4, pp. 2-49). On April 18, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act prior to March 2, 2017, the date he attained age 18 or thereafter. (ECF No. 10-3).

         After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed an action in this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 12 and 15). The issues are now ripe for review.

         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 “more 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. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986); Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where 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.

         The Social Security Act provides that a child under 18 is “disabled” for purposes of SSI eligibility if he or she “has a medically determinable physical or mental impairment, which results in marked and severe functional limitations, and 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. §1382c(a)(3)(C)(i). The Commissioner follows a three-step sequential process in determining childhood disability: (1) whether the child is doing substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he or she has a medically determinable severe impairment; (3) if so, whether the child's severe impairment meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of a set of criteria for an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. §416.924. An impairment functionally equals a listed impairment if the child has “marked” limitations[2] in two domains of functioning or an “extreme” limitation[3] in one domain. 20 C.F.R. §416.926(a). The six domains are: acquiring and using information; attending and completing tasks; interacting and relating with others; moving about and manipulating objects; caring for yourself; and health and physical well-being. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(1)(i)-(iv). When evaluating the ability to function in each domain, the ALJ considers information that will help answer the following questions “about whether your impairment(s) affect your functioning and whether your activities are typical of other children your age who do not have impairments”: What activities are you able to perform; What activities are you not able to perform; Which of your activities are limited or restricted compared to other children your age who do not have impairments; Where do you have difficulty with your activities - at home, in childcare, at school, or in the community; Do you have difficulty independently initiating, sustaining, or completing activities; and What kind of help do you need to do your activities, how much help do you need, and how often do you need it. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(b)(2)(i)-(vi).

         In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to March 2, 2017, the date he attained age 18. (ECF No. 10-3, p. 30).

         To be eligible for social security benefits after attaining the age of 18, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he 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. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

         In such instances, 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). 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., appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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.

         In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled after attaining the age of 18. (ECF No. 10-3, p. 30).

         B. Assessment of ...


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