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Newell v. Commissioner of Social Security

October 14, 2003

JANICE NEWELL, APPELLANT
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY



Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civ. No. 01-2850) District Judge: Honorable Anne E. Thompson

Before: Barry, Becker, and Greenberg, Circuit Judges

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

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued September 9, 2003

OPINION OF THE COURT

This matter comes on before this court on appeal from an order entered on December 3, 2002, affirming the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying appellant Janice Newell's ("Newell") request for widow's disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The district court had jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and we have jurisdiction over Newell's appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. For the reasons set forth below, we will reverse the district court's order affirming the Commissioner's decision and instruct the district court to remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

A. Procedural History

Newell applied for widow's disability benefits on November 16, 1998. To receive such benefits, Newell needed to demonstrate, inter alia, that she is (1) at least 50 but less than 60 years old; (2) the widow of a wage earner; and (3) under a disability as defined in 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.336. Newell, who was 56 years old at the time of her hearing before the ALJ, is the widow of wage earner Robert S. Newell. In her application for widow's disability benefits, she alleged that she had been disabled since July 1, 1997, due to arthritis in her lower back and neck, a deteriorated disc, internal derangement of her knee, sciatica, and diabetes. At oral argument before this court, however, her attorney indicated that her disability is based solely on her liver disease, diabetes, and neuropathy.*fn1

The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Newell's application for widow's disability benefits on April 20, 1999, and again upon reconsideration on June 17, 1999. Newell appealed and a hearing was held on February 9, 2000, before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Gerald J. Ryan. On April 17, 2000, ALJ Ryan issued a decision denying her application for benefits. His decision became final on April 16, 2001, after the Appeals Council denied Newell's request for administrative review. On June 14, 2001, Newell filed a complaint in the district court challenging the Commissioner's final ruling. The district court affirmed the final decision of the Commissioner on December 3, 2002. Newell thereafter filed this appeal.

B. Factual Background

Newell was born on August 1, 1943, and married Robert S. Newell on August 31, 1968. Their marriage ended in divorce in June 1987, and she has not remarried. Her former husband, a wage earner, died fully insured for Social Security benefits on August 9, 1990, and Newell's eligibility for widow's benefits based on his earnings terminated at the close of the 84th month (seven years) after his death, on August 31, 1997, so that her disability had to have commenced by that date for her to be eligible for benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.336(c)(1).*fn2

From 1994 through December 1996, Newell was self-employed doing part-time consulting and craftwork. She estimates that she earned $5000 to $6000 per year during that time. From December 1996 through July 1997, she worked occasionally with a friend who was a carpenter, painting and making stained glass windows. She estimates that she earned $3000 per year during that time. In July 1997, Newell injured her back when she tripped over a lawn mower. After that incident, she stopped working completely. She also stopped doing yardwork, gardening, washing, and cleaning.

Newell contends that she became disabled on July 1, 1997, but could not afford medical care at that time because she was uninsured. Beginning on June 1, 1998, however, she did seek medical attention when her father gave her the money to pay for it. Accordingly, most of the evidence in her record is comprised of doctors' reports dated post August 31, 1997, the date upon which her eligibility for widow's benefits expired. Newell contends that regardless of the dates on her medical reports, she is entitled to widow's benefits because her medical conditions -- liver disease, diabetes, and neuropathy -- were present prior to August 31, 1997. She argues that these conditions are slowly progressive and that they disabled her within the period of her eligibility for benefits.

1. The Medical Evidence Before ALJ Ryan

The medical evidence consists of reports from Newell's family doctor and her orthopedist, reports from the SSA in the form of a Residual Physical Functional Capacity Assessment and from a consultative examiner, as well as ...


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