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Ferguson v. Schweiker

June 11, 1985

ELIZABETH L. FERGUSON, APPELLANT
v.
RICHARD S. SCHWEIKER, SECRETARY UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, APPELLEE



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (Civil No. 81-2130)

Author: Gibbons

Before GIBBONS and HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judges and SAROKIN, District Judge*fn*

Opinion OF THE COURT

GIBBONS, Circuit Judge :

Elizabeth L. Ferguson appeals from summary judgment in this Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") case in favor of the Secretary of Health and Human Resources. In April of 1980, Ferguson had applied for SSI benefits alleging that she was disabled within the meaning of Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 (1982), and § 1382c(a)(3)(A) (1982) et seq.*fn1 Her claims were denied at all administrative levels and the district court held the Secretary's decision to be supported by substantial evidence. Ferguson appeals the Secretary's determination that her impairments are not "severe" within the meaning of 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c).*fn2 We conclude that Ferguson has submitted sufficient evidence to prove a prima facie case of disability under the standards announced by this court in Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 58 (3d Cir. 1979), and that the Secretary failed to meet the burden of proof established by Rossi for overcoming a claimant's prima facie claim for benefits. We, therefore, reverse and remand for entry of an order directing the Secretary to pay disability benefits.

I.

Factual Background

Ferguson is 67 years old, has a seventh grade education, has received no vocational training and claims to have been disabled since 1967 or 1968. Her memory of her job positions is vague and confused, but she acknowledges that from 1952 through 1967, she also performed domestic work in private homes that required frequent bending and reaching while mopping, vacuuming, sweeping, and cooking. From 1962-67, Ferguson also operated a power sewing machine with foot controls and did some light hand sewing. In 1978, she attempted to work as a salad maker five days a week, three hours a day. The latter position required her to stand most of the time, walk a great deal, and constantly bend and reach. Ferguson testified that she lifted no more than l5 pounds on this job. She used both hands for washing and cutting the salad and for serving the salad to customers. She lasted only three months in this position.

Dr. Henry Scott, a general practitioner, has been Ferguson's treating physician since 1968. Dr. Scott's letters and clinical notes indicate that Ferguson visited Dr. Scott consistently from 1968 through December of 1982 and that, over this period, he treated her for hypertensive cardiovascular disease, chest pain, lower back pain, anxiety neurosis, degenerative joint disease, headaches, fungus infection of both hands, bronchitis, diabetes-mellitus, and kidney problems. Tr. 194-95, 196-99, 209, 222-79, 284. Her medications since 1979 include arlidin, hydrodiuril, valium, clinoril, antivert, lotrimin, persantine, and a variety of remedies for upper respiratory infections. Tr. 199.

Beginning in 1980, Ferguson filed three separate SSI applications with the Social Security Administration claiming disability dating back to 1968 due to hypertensive heart disease, hardening of the arteries, bronchitis, asthma, and a fungus infection. The three applications were consolidated and only evidence submitted after December 21, 1977 was considered.

At all levels of agency review, the Secretary had access to Dr. Scott's written assessments of Ferguson's condition, which, without exception, classified Ferguson as "disabled" (Tr. 196, 284), "not employable" (Tr. 196), and "not able to do any work without endanger [sic] to her health and those around her." Tr. 195. By late 1982, in a letter to an Attorney for the Community Legal Services, Dr. Scott opines that Ferguson's health was deteriorating. He states that Ferguson has painful and swollen hands which emit a foul odor most of the time due to onychomycosis (chronic fungus infection of both thumbs) and that when attacks are acute she has difficulty holding objects. Dr. Scott also notes that (1) Ferguson experiences shortness of breath, probably due to her hypertensive cardiovascular disease, which is made worse when she sits or rises on a frequent basis; that (2) she cannot lift twenty pounds occasionally or ten pounds frequently without placing an excessive burden on her heart; and that (3) under minor physical or mental stress, Ferguson's heart condition could lead to heart failure. Finally, Dr. Scott reports that other tests and lab reports indicate that Ferguson has mild diabetes, degenerative joint disease, gouty arthritis, some kidney deterioration, and arthritis in her joints that limits her ability to bend, walk, or stand. Tr. 194-95, 213, 215.

In another set of correspondence, Dr. Scott notes that (1) beginning in 1980 Ferguson complained of chest pains and that these pains today are aggravated when she walks or climbs stairs; (2) although the drug persantine gives some relief, "[f]rom a cardiac standpoint she has been advised against over-exertion, which includes prolong [sic] standing, walking, bending, climbing or running;" (3) her arthritis, complicated by gout, has not improved, causing her stiff knees at times, making it difficult for her to walk; (4) although her blood pressure is controlled by hydrodiuril, "medically she has suffered some damaged [sic] to her kidneys, heart and possibly her brain" and (5) she has recently developed a fine tremor in her head, probably resulting from hardening of the arteries due partially to hypertension. Tr. l96.

Two weeks later, Dr. Scott wrote again to add that (1) Ferguson's cardiovascular system had deteriorated; she had developed severe shortness of breath and chest pains on exertion; (2) her fingers remained sore and infected so that it occasionally was very difficult for her to use them; and (3) in spite of adequate medication, her health had further deteriorated. Tr. 199.

By 1983, Ferguson's situation had worsened. She testified before the Administrative Law Judge that she experiences migraine headaches at least three times a week, has difficulty walking more than fifteen minutes, or sitting for more than six minutes, and experiences dizzy spells. Tr. 86, 88-89. She suffers chest pains twice a day that are temporarily relieved by nitroglycerin. She also experiences pain in her legs, back, and hips, for which she takes clinoril and valium. ...


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