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BAEDER v. HECKLER

September 10, 1984

PAUL H. BAEDER, Plaintiff,
v.
MARGARET HECKLER, Secretary of Health and Human Services of the United States, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: GERRY

 1. Procedural History.

 This is an action brought under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended (hereinafter referred to as the Act), 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final determination of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (hereinafter referred to as the Secretary), which denied plaintiff's application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits.

 The plaintiff, Paul Baeder, applied for disability benefits on November 17, 1982. His application was denied by the Secretary, both initially and on reconsideration. (Court Transcript, pp. 41-2, 46-7.) Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing, which was held on March 4, 1983, before Wallace Tannenbaum, an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter referred to as the ALJ). After a de novo consideration of Mr. Baeder's case, the ALJ ruled on May 27, 1983 that Mr. Baeder was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Id., pp. 9-12.) The ALJ's ruling became the final decision of the Secretary when it was approved by the Appeals Council on July 21, 1983. (Id., p. 2.) Plaintiff then brought the present suit seeking this court's review of the Secretary's decision.

 2. The ALJ's Decision.

 Plaintiff had been employed from 1950 to 1980 as an operator of a glass bottle machine at the Owens-Illinois Glass Company plant. (Court Transcript, pp. 25, 33, 67.) This rather strenuous job required Mr. Baeder to lift and carry loads weighing between 5 and 35 pounds frequently during the day. In addition, the job required continual bending, reaching and climbing, as well as constant standing and walking. (Id., p. 68.) Because of plaintiff's developing problems with arthritis, chest pains, respiratory impairments, dizziness and headaches, he spent the last three years of his employment attempting to do less strenuous work, such as that of "spare boy" (viz., a temporary replacement for the regular bottling machine operators) and janitor. (Id., pp. 25-6, 33-4.) After approximately 30 years of work, Mr. Baeder left his job in January of 1980, purportedly because his physical impairments precluded his continuing at such employment. (Id., pp. 25-6.)

 The ALJ decided plaintiff's case by following the Secretary's five-step disability evaluation procedure, outlined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a). The brief text of the ALJ's decision contains a rather cursory review of the record, after which the ALJ found that plaintiff did not suffer from a "severe impairment." Under 404.1520(c), the plaintiff was deemed to be "not disabled." Accordingly, the ALJ did not directly consider Mr. Baeder's individual vocational abilities and simply concluded that Mr. Baeder had "the residual functional capacity to perform basic work activities at a substantial gainful level." (Id., p. 11.)

 Among the ALJ's specific "findings" were that Mr. Baeder's physical impairments did not preclude his return to "past relevant work." (Id.) Presumably, the ALJ must have believed that the plaintiff had not met his initial burden of showing that his impairments prevented him from returning to his former job as a glass bottle machine operator. See, e.g., Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979). Hence, plaintiff's application for disability benefits was denied.

 3. Analysis of the Secretary's Factual Determinations.

 Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), it is the function of this court on review of the Secretary's ruling to decide if that ruling was based upon "substantial evidence," defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842, 91 S. Ct. 1420 (1971), (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229, 83 L. Ed. 126, 59 S. Ct. 206 (1938)). In addition, even when the Secretary's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, it is also the duty of this court to determine whether the Secretary's rulings are based upon correct legal standards. See, e.g., Strickland v. Harris, 615 F.2d 1103, 1108 (5th Cir. 1980). Moreover, this court has the authority to scrutinize the various procedural rules and regulations promulgated by the Secretary pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(a), in order to determine if those rules and regulations are valid as applied to the particular cases before the court. 42 U.S.C § 405(g). It has been well established, of course, that such regulations must be upheld if they are "reasonably related" to the purposes of the enabling legislation. Mourning v. Family Publications Service, Inc., 411 U.S. 356, 369, 36 L. Ed. 2d 318, 93 S. Ct. 1652 (1972); Thorpe v. Housing Authority of the City of Durham, 393 U.S. 268, 280-281, 21 L. Ed. 2d 474, 89 S. Ct. 518 (1969). See also Cheers v. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, 610 F.2d 463, 466 (7th Cir. 1979), cert. denied, 449 U.S. 898, 101 S. Ct. 266, 66 L. Ed. 2d 128 (1980).

 After a careful consideration of the entire record, as well as the briefs submitted by the parties, this court is compelled to find that the Secretary's factual conclusions were not based upon substantial evidence. Further, this court also finds that the Secretary has promulgated an invalid procedural regulation in her five-step formula for the evaluation of disability claims. On both of these grounds, this court will order the ALJ's decision vacated and plaintiff's case remanded to the Secretary for further proceedings. A discussion of the reasons underlying these conclusions now follows, focusing first upon the Secretary's erroneous factual determinations.

 In support of his claim for disability benefits, Mr. Baeder submitted as evidence several medical reports and opinions, as well as his testimony to the effect that he was precluded from performing his former job or any sort of substantial gainful activity. (Court Transcript, pp. 87-104, 20-36.) No evidence was offered by the Secretary to counter plaintiff's evidence. In finding the plaintiff to be "not disabled," the ALJ dismissed part of plaintiff's evidence and simply did not discuss the rest. For example, despite the opinion of plaintiff's physician, Dr. Frank D. Brigio, that plaintiff was "totally disabled" because of his worsening respiratory impairment, the ALJ decided that Mr. Baeder's physical impairments were not very serious or extensive. The ALJ came to the conclusion by claiming that Dr. Brigio's statements regarding the plaintiff's physical condition were not supported by "clinical evidence." (Id., p. 11.) However, the ALJ's claim in this instance is simply false. The record shows that Dr. Brigio's most recent diagnosis of Mr. Baeder (dated March 10, 1983) was submitted along with 15 pages of detailed pulmonary function studies done at the Bridgeton Hospital in Bridgeton, New Jersey, on March 1, 1983. (Id., pp. 89-104.) The ALJ pointed to no other source of evidence to refute the professional opinions and clinical tests submitted by Mr. Baeder's physician but, rather, dismissed this evidence for no legitimate reason.

 Under the law, a treating physician's opinion cannot be rejected unless the ALJ refers to some other medical evidence contradicting it. Rossi, supra, at 58. The ALJ's only other statement in support of his rejection of plaintiff's evidence was that "there is no evidence of recurrent infection or pulmonary insufficiency or a combination of these factors." (Court Transcript, p. 11.) On its face, such an observation cannot be interpreted as anything but the ALJ's own "medical" opinion. It is well established, however, that such "medical" judgments by an ALJ contrary to professional medical opinion are simply invalid. See, e.g., Smith v. Schweiker, 671 F.2d 789, 793 (3d Cir. 1982).

 The ALJ also said virtually nothing about plaintiff's sworn testimony, except to summarize it briefly. But since the ALJ apparently found such testimony to be incredible, the ALJ had an obligation under the law to explain the grounds for such a finding. See, e.g., Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704-7 (3d Cir. 1981). Moreover, when a claimant has a work record like that of Mr. Baeder -- approximately thirty years of continuous work with the same employer -- his testimony as to his capabilities is entitled to substantial credibility. Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 409 (3d Cir. 1979). The only other comment by the ALJ regarding the hearing itself was his observation that Mr. Baeder "did not appear to be in pain or discomfort." (Court Transcript, p. 11.) However, while the ALJ is empowered to evaluate the credibility of witnesses, see, e.g., Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 969 (3d Cir. 1981), this court cannot responsibly determine that the ALJ's rejection of plaintiff's subjective testimony was based upon substantial evidence when the ALJ completely failed to explain the reasons for such a rejection. Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 871, 873-4 (3d Cir. 1983). Furthermore, bare observations by the ALJ regarding a plaintiff's "healthy appearance" simply do not constitute substantial evidence of non-disability, nor are such observations sufficient in themselves to discredit a plaintiff's sworn testimony. See, e.g., Lewis v. Califano, 616 F.2d 73, 76-7 (3d Cir. 1980).

 In addition to the above, this court has found some notable discrepancies in the plaintiff's evidence which the ALJ ought to address and resolve upon remand.

 In the first place, the record contains a document entitled "Report of Telephone Contact," dated November 29, 1982, in which the plaintiff's physician (Dr. Brigio) apparently downplays the severity of several of the plaintiff's physical impairments. (Court Transcript, p. 85.) If the content of this document is veridical, then the other opinions of Dr. Brigio, which continually stress the plaintiff's total physical incapacity, might become questionable. On the other hand, this particular document may be misleading, since it is written in rather general and somewhat vague terms, and since the signature of Dr. Brigio which appears on it does not appear to be authentic (i.e., when compared to the consistently similar signatures of Dr. Brigio on three other documents in the record). In any event, on remand the ALJ is directed to clear up this matter and to determine precisely Dr. Brigio's medical prognosis of the plaintiff's health. The ALJ did not discuss this document at all in his decision. However, even if the ALJ did use this document to discredit Dr. Brigio's other reports, it must be noted that Dr. Brigio's contention that Mr. Baeder's primary health problem was his worsening pulmonary disease is not mentioned in the Telephone Contact. Hence, even at worst, this document may not reveal any inconsistency in plaintiff's evidence that is significant enough to damage his claim of disability.

 The ALJ is directed, therefore, not only to provide specific reasons for his rejection of any probative evidence (including the plaintiff's testimony), but to make the additional findings necessary to clear up the doubts about plaintiff's case which might be raised by the two items just discussed. The ALJ should be aware that these directives only result from a restatement of the obligations imposed by the law and, as ...


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