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Grubbs v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 11, 2019

ERIC LEWIS GRUBBS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Joy Flowers Conti, Senior United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Eric Lewis Grubbs (“plaintiff” or “Grubbs”) brought this action for judicial review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), which partially denied his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 11, 17), which are fully briefed (ECF Nos. 12, 18, 21) and are ripe for disposition. For the following reasons, plaintiff's motion will be GRANTED IN PART, the Commissioner's motion will be DENIED, and the case will be remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         II. Background

         Grubbs was born on October 15, 1962.[1] (R. 46). He earned a GED degree and has a lengthy past relevant work record as a blaster in a coal mine, which is considered heavy exertional level with a Specific Vocational Preparation (“SVP”) rating of 7. Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of disability, October 1, 2015. On October 15, 2017, Plaintiff turned 55 years old. Because he was regarded as a “person of advanced age, ” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(e), the administrative law judge found him to be disabled as of that date. The issue in dispute is whether Grubbs is entitled to DIB for the period from October 2015 to October 2017.

         A. Procedural History

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on November 11, 2015, alleging disability as of May 14, 2015, later amended to October 1, 2015.[2] After plaintiff's claims were denied at the administrative level, he requested a hearing, which was held on October 17, 2017, in Morgantown, West Virginia, before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). At the hearing, Grubbs was represented by counsel and testified, as did an impartial vocational expert (“VE”) (R. 37-70).

         After plaintiff's attorney cross-examined the VE, she stated that she had no further questions. (R. 69). The ALJ asked if she had anything else [to present] and she answered “No. Thank you, Judge.” Id. The ALJ stated: “The hearing is now closed and we're off the record.” (R. 70).

         The next day, October 18, 2017, plaintiff's counsel submitted a letter to the ALJ asking, among other things, that he consider objections to the VE's testimony. Specifically, counsel contended that based upon the Department of Labor's Occupational Information Network (“O*Net”), the jobs identified by the VE (office helper, mail clerk, and storage facility rental clerk) were not compatible with Grubbs' residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as set forth in the hypothetical posed to the VE in the hearing.[3]

         On January 10, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision partially favorable to Grubbs, finding that he was not disabled prior to October 15, 2017, but became disabled as of his 55th birthday. (R. 12-30). The ALJ's decision, which did not address the letter submitted by plaintiff's counsel after the hearing, became the final decision of the Commissioner on May 2, 2014, when the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request to review the decision of the ALJ. (R. 1-6).

         On December 17, 2018, Grubbs filed his complaint in this court, seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment followed.

         III. Legal Analysis

         A. Standard of Review

         The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (the scope of review is “quite limited”). The United States Supreme Court has defined “substantial evidence” as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 ...


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