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Reefer v. Barnhart

April 14, 2003


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 00-cv-00675) District Judge: Honorable Gustave Diamond

Before: Barry and Ambro, Circuit Judges ACKERMAN,*fn2 District Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambro, Circuit Judge


Argued November 20, 2002


Laurel Reefer appeals a decision discontinuing her Social Security benefits. Because that decision was not supported by substantial evidence, we reverse and remand.

I. Background

In 1989, Reefer began receiving Social Security Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits because she suffered disabling hypertension. In March 1997, the Social Security Administration ("SSA") reviewed Reefer's case and issued a notice of disability cessation on the ground that her medical condition had improved to the point that her disability had ceased. *fn3 Her benefits were discontinued as of May 31, 1997.

Reefer requested reconsideration of the SSA's denial of benefits, alleging continuing disability due to hypertension, anxiety, tiredness, muscle spasms and pain in her left leg, shoulder, arm and hand, chest pains, neck pains and headaches. On reconsideration, the SSA again denied Reefer benefits. She then sought an administrative hearing, which was held on September 10, 1998 before an administrative law judge (the "ALJ"). Reefer appeared pro se at the hearing, which lasted only twenty minutes. She testified that she suffered a stroke in 1997 and provided the ALJ with the names of her two treating physicians --Dr. Tuchinda, a cardiologist, and Dr. Tabas, her primary-care physician. She also testified that she was having seizures, for which her neurologist ordered video monitoring. At the conclusion of the hearing, the ALJ said that he would obtain additional medical records and, if necessary, would call for another hearing. The ALJ did obtain some of Reefer's medical records. However, he issued his opinion without the benefit of a second hearing and without requesting testimony from either of Reefer's treating physicians. The record before the ALJ contained no medical report concerning the 1997 stroke.

Between the date of the hearing and the ALJ's decision, Reefer underwent elective surgery in 1999 to remove pressure from her brainstem. Following this surgery, she suffered a second stroke. However, because the ALJ did not request medical records detailing these events, they also were not before him at the time of his decision. Reefer submitted those records both to the District Court and to this Court on appeal. *fn4

In his May 26, 1999 decision, the ALJ found that Reefer was not entitled to SSI. First, the ALJ found that Reefer does not suffer from any of the impairments described in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, which would make her per se disabled. He said that her "hypertension[,] though severe, is well-controlled . . . with only situational episodic elevation," and that no medical evidence supported her alleged mental and neurological impairments. He also found that Reefer's "activities of daily living are . . . not consistent with an individual experiencing total[ ] disability," and that her "statements concerning her impairments and their impact on her ability to work are not entirely credible." In so finding, the ALJ noted that "[i]n her Daily Activities Questionnaire, the claimant indicated that she can independently care for her personal needs. She cooks, does dishes, dusts, vacuums, and does other housework." The ALJ went on to find that "[a]lthough she indicated on her Fatigue and Pain Questionnaires that both pain and fatigue interfere substantially with her daily activities, this is not supported by her own statements, nor by the objective medical evidence in record." Finally, the ALJ stated that "the claimant retains the residual functional capacity to perform the exertional demands of at least light work, or work which requires maximum lifting of 20 pounds and frequent lifting of up to 10 pounds . . . . The evidence supports a finding that she is able to lift and carry 20 pounds. The claimant has no significant non-exertional limitations which narrow the range of work she can perform, as demonstrated by the objective medical evidence."

In this context, the ALJ concluded that Reefer was capable of returning to her past relevant work as a cleaner. The ALJ also noted that application of Reefer's residual functional capacity to the Medical-Vocational Guidelines set out in 20 C.F.R., Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, confirmed that there are jobs in the economy she can perform.

Reefer filed a request for review, which the Appeals Council denied. She then filed a complaint in the District Court, which granted summary judgment in favor of the Commissioner. At issue here is whether the ALJ's determinations that Reefer is no longer disabled and can find work in the economy are supported by substantial evidence. Reefer asks that we either (1) reverse the District Court's decision and ...

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