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Hudson v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security Administration


          Thomas J. Rueter United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, Adam Isaiah Hudson, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“Act”).

         Plaintiff filed a Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of Request for Review (“Pl.'s Br.”), defendant filed a Response to Plaintiff's Request for Review (“Def.'s Br.”), and plaintiff filed a reply thereto (“Pl.'s Reply”). For the reasons set forth below, the court recommends that plaintiff's Request for Review be GRANTED.


         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on October 27, 2014, alleging disability beginning January 1, 2007. (R. 247-55.) Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and he filed a timely request for a hearing. (R. 67-83.) A hearing was held on February 24, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Frederick Timm. (R. 27-66.) Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. Steven Gumerman, a vocational expert (“VE”), also appeared and testified. In a decision dated April 4, 2017, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 11-26.) The ALJ made the following findings:

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 25, 2014 (20 CFR 416.920(b) and 416.971 et seq.).[2]
2. The claimant has the following severe impairments: obesity, specific learning disorder, paranoid schizophrenia with polysubstance abuse dependence, bipolar affective disorder (BPAD) with polysubstance dependence and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (20 CFR 416.920(c)).
3. The claimant's impairments, including the substance abuse disorder, meet section 12.03 and 12.09 of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)).[3]
4. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the remaining limitations would cause more than minimal impact on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities; therefore, the claimant would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.
5. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 416.920(d)).
6. If the claimant stopped the substance use, the claimant would have the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except that he could only perform unskilled tasks and goal-oriented rather than production-paced tasks, he could have no interaction with the general public (even by telephone) and no more than occasional interaction with supervisors/co-workers, and he would require a stable workplace (few if any changes of setting, processes and tools).
7. The claimant has no past relevant work (20 CFR 416.965).
8. The claimant was born on October 19, 1995 and was twenty-one years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the date the application was filed.
9. The claimant has a limited education and is able to communicate in English (20 CFR 416.964).
10. Transferability of job skills is not an issue because the claimant does not have past relevant work (20 CFR 416.968).
11. If the claimant stopped the substance use, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that the claimant could perform (20 CFR 416.960(c) and 416.966).
12. The substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because the claimant would not be disabled if he stopped the substance use (20 CFR 416.920(g) and 416.935). Because the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, the claimant has not been disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act at any time from the date the application was filed through the date of this decision.

(R. 11-22.)

         Plaintiff filed a request for review of the decision of the ALJ that was denied and the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-7, 245-46.) Plaintiff then filed the present claim, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The role of this court on judicial review is to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), cert. denied, 571 U.S. 1204 (2014); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019) (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla of evidence, but may be less than a preponderance of the evidence. Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Serv., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995). This court may not weigh evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992)). As the Third Circuit has stated, “so long as an agency's fact-finding is supported by substantial evidence, reviewing courts lack power to reverse . . . those findings.” Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1191 (3d Cir. 1986).

         To be eligible for benefits, the claimant 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Specifically, the impairments must be such that the claimant “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.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). Under the Act, the claimant has the burden of proving the existence of a disability and must furnish medical evidence indicating the severity of the impairment. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(H)(i).

         The Social Security Administration employs a five-part procedure to determine whether an individual has met this burden. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.[4] This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment which meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) if not, whether the claimant is able to perform other work, in view of his age, education, and work experience. See id. The claimant bears the burden of establishing steps one through four of the five-step evaluation process, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in large numbers in the national economy. Hess v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 931 F.3d 198, 201 (3d Cir. 2019).


         Plaintiff, who was twenty-one years old at the time of the February 2017 administrative hearing, testified that he does not have, and never has had, a driver's license. (R. 45, 60.) Plaintiff confirmed that his mother died when he was young and that her death adversely affected him. (R. 40.) His mother had sixteen children; he stated that no one took care of him. (R. 41.) When he was in school, plaintiff argued and fought with teachers and other students. (R. 40.) He was not taught how to read, and has difficulty reading and writing. (R. 41.) As a result of his problems with school, plaintiff was placed in an alternative school, George Junior Republic. Id. For a time, plaintiff was housed there in a padded cell in order to restrain and isolate him. Id. After leaving George Junior Republic, plaintiff was placed in the care of his godmother. (R. 45.) With respect to his education, it appears that plaintiff last attended Penrose Elementary School in Philadelphia and dropped out of school at some point. (R. 45-46.)[5]

         At the outset of the hearing, the ALJ noted that plaintiff was wearing a hoodie and a hat. (R. 32.) Plaintiff explained that he always wears a hoodie, because he feels that people are looking at him, which scares him. (R. 33.) Plaintiff confirmed that he participated in treatment to address issues with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Id. Plaintiff indicated that he has difficulty going outside alone and that his sister drove him to treatment. Id. He stopped attending treatment in August 2016 when his sister got a job and was no longer able to drive him there. (R. 34.) However, he began treatment again in December of that year, when his brother brought him to treatment. Id. Approximately one year prior to the February 2017 administrative hearing, plaintiff attempted to obtain his GED through classes offered at the treatment center, but he was unable to focus and stopped attending classes after one week. (R. 51.)

         When asked to describe how he sleeps at night, plaintiff explained that he normally sleeps in the morning, rather than at night. (R. 34-35.) Plaintiff has experienced nightmares of his father hitting him for as long as he can remember. (R. 35.) Plaintiff further elaborated that he does not sleep at night due to thoughts of abuse. (R. 44.) Plaintiff stated that he does not sleep at night “[b]ecause of the fact that I feel as though I always got hit at nighttime, so by me getting hit at nighttime, I think going to sleep in the morning, that is better.” (R. 44.) Plaintiff also indicated that loud noises and arguing can trigger memories of his abuse. Id. He avoids crowds due to a fear of being harmed. Id. Plaintiff does not feel safe outside as a result, but acknowledged that “[w]e got a camera outside our house, so I feel safe.” (R. 45.)

         Plaintiff explained that he lives with his sister on weekdays and with his brother on weekends. (R. 35.) He spends his days sitting alone in a room, because he likes to be by himself. Id. When asked to elaborate, plaintiff stated, “because I can't hurt myself.” (R. 36.) He acknowledged that he does not get along well with others because he “tend[s] to argue” and is destructive when he argues. (R. 36-37.) At times, plaintiff blacks out when angry. (R. 42.) When asked to describe this situation, plaintiff stated, “I don't know. I just black out. And I wake up, there's walls broke and doors off hinges.” Id. Plaintiff confirmed statements in the Function Report that was completed in connection with his application for benefits which indicate that he feels bad about himself and sometimes feels like giving up. (R. 38.) When asked whether he goes outside, plaintiff indicated that he does so “very rare[ly]” and that he prefers to stay in his basement room. Id. To the extent that he goes out alone, plaintiff may walk to the store that is on his block. Id. Plaintiff explained that his sister does not ask him to pick up items at the store because he is unable to remember a list of items. (R. 38-39.)[6]

         Plaintiff acknowledged that he needs reminders to bathe and change his clothes, and that his brother instructed him to change his clothes two days prior to the hearing. (R. 37.) Plaintiff does not perform household chores because he is unable to sufficiently focus to complete the task at hand. Id. He does not know how to cook. (R. 41.) When asked whether he needs reminders to take his medication, plaintiff stated, “[y]es my sister. She got it out for me every day.” (R. 53.)

         Plaintiff confirmed that he has been arrested twice for selling drugs, but stated that he no longer sold drugs. (R. 39.) When asked to explain how he is able to perform the math computations necessary to sell drugs, plaintiff stated, “the Chinese store is on my block, and my house is about four houses from the Chinese store, so I'll sell - I normally - if I - my sister friend come over, I know he would normally walk me to the store, but I hold stuff.” Id. Based on other evidence from the administrative record, the ALJ questioned plaintiff whether he had ever done more than hold drugs. (R. 46.) Plaintiff denied knowing how to chop, and bag up, cocaine. (R. 46-47.) Plaintiff explained that in the context of a group therapy meeting, several members had a discussion about drugs and plaintiff reported to the other members that his participation was limited to holding the drugs. (R. 47.) Plaintiff acknowledged seeing his sister's friend chop cocaine. (R. 47-48.) Plaintiff denied using drugs. (R. 51.) He was asked how long it had been since he “used any street drugs, of any kind, including marijuana.” Id. Plaintiff replied, “[t]wo years, a year - two years.” Id.[7] Plaintiff's counsel then pointed out a June 2, 2016 urine drug screen “that was clean of anything.” (R. 52.)

         Plaintiff also was asked about a recent employment attempt. Plaintiff explained that his sister's friend was renovating a nearby home and plaintiff was asked to help with the labor. (R. 39-40, 49.) However, plaintiff got into a fight with a co-worker and argued with another. (R. 40.) After the altercation, plaintiff was instructed not to return to the worksite. Id.[8] Plaintiff worked for approximately eight days, but was not paid for the work he performed. (R. 40.)[9] When asked whether he had applied for any other jobs, plaintiff ...

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