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Montgomery v. Commissioner of the Social Security Administration

March 5, 2009

EDDIE MONTGOMERY, JR., PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, denying the application of Plaintiff, Eddie Montgomery, Jr., for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq. The issue before the Court is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred in finding that there was "substantial evidence" that Plaintiff did not satisfy the criteria of any impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "Listing") prior to the expiration of his insured status on March 31, 1999. For the reasons stated below, this Court will affirm that decision.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff, a fifty-seven year old man, had been employed off and on, primarily as a window maker, until in or around November 2000.*fn1 (R. at 19, 157-61.) On January 9, 2003, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits, alleging an inability to work since March 31, 1999 due to spinal stenosis, curved spine, high blood pressure, eye problems, and asthma. (Id. at 17, 177-86.) This application was initially denied on July 11, 2003. (Id. at 70, 72-76.) Thereafter, upon reconsideration on May 21, 2004, Plaintiff's application was approved, with a primary diagnosis of back disorder (discogenic & degenerative) and a secondary diagnosis of asthma, and a disability onset date of January 9, 2003. (Id. at 71.)

Plaintiff also protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on January 20, 2004, which was deemed to be protectively filed on January 9, 2003, because Plaintiff's application for SSI was then under reconsideration. (Id. at 17.) This application for DIB was ultimately denied after reconsideration on May 28, 2004, when it was determined that Plaintiff was not disabled on or before the date he was last insured for DIB, March 31, 1999.*fn2 (Id.)

On July 7, 2004, Plaintiff filed a timely appeal of the denial of his DIB benefits and requested a hearing. (Id. at 85.) A hearing was held on December 14, 2005 before ALJ Daniel W. Shoemaker, Jr. (Id. at 34-61.) Following the hearing, the record was held open for 30 days at the request of Plaintiff's counsel for submission of additional evidence, but nothing further was received. (Id. at 18.) After the hearing, the ALJ also requested a consultative psychological examination and intelligence testing of Plaintiff. (Id.) This testing was conducted by Dr. Kenneth Goldberg on February 20, 2006 and March 8, 2006, and his reports were subsequently entered into the record. (Id. at 18, 301-14.) Plaintiff's counsel was then given an opportunity to respond to the additional medical evidence, and on May 3, 2006, Plaintiff's counsel submitted comments regarding Dr. Goldberg's reports and a brief that were entered into the record. (Id. at 18, 145-46.)

On May 25, 2006, ALJ Shoemaker issued his decision denying Plaintiff's application for DIB. (Id. at 17-32.) As a preliminary matter, ALJ Shoemaker found that Plaintiff only met the non-disability requirements for DIB set forth in Section 216(I) of the Social Security Act and was insured for benefits through March 31, 1999. (Id. at 31.) Then, performing the five step evaluation pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, ALJ Shoemaker found first that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 1999, the alleged date of disability onset. (Id.) With respect to step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a mental deficiency impairment that was "severe" on or before his insured status expired on March 31, 1999. (Id.) At step three, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's mental deficiency, although severe, did not meet the requirements of any impairments on the Listing. (Id.) At step four, the ALJ then found that Plaintiff's impairment "did not prevent him from performing his past relevant work on or before the date he was last insured for [DIB], March 31, 1999." (Id. at 32.) Specifically, the ALJ found that "[o]n or before March 31, 1999, [Plaintiff] was restricted to work involving simple instructions and simple repetitive tasks," but that Plaintiff's "past relevant work as a window maker did not require the performance of work functions precluded by his medically determinable impairment on or before the date he was last insured for [DIB], March 31, 1999." (Id. at 31.) Having found that Plaintiff was not precluded from performing his past relevant work, the ALJ was not required to proceed to step five, and determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act on or before the expiration of his DIB coverage. (Id. at 32.)

Plaintiff filed a Request for Review of Hearing Decision on July 25, 2006. (Id. at 12-13.) That request was denied by the Appeals Council on August 3, 2007. (Id. at 6-8.) Thereafter, on September 20, 2007, Plaintiff filed the instant action.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Congress provided for judicial review of the Commissioner's decision to deny a complainant's application for DIB. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995). A reviewing court must uphold the Commissioner's factual decisions where they are supported by "substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001); Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262 (3d Cir. 2000); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992). Substantial evidence means more than "a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. V. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. The inquiry is not whether the reviewing court would have made the same determination, but whether the Commissioner's conclusion was reasonable. See Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988).

A reviewing court has a duty to review the evidence in its totality. See Daring v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1984). "[A] court must 'take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.'" Schonewolf v. Callahan, 972 F. Supp. 277, 284 (D.N.J. 1997) (quoting Willbanks v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 847 F.2d 301, 303 (6th Cir. 1988) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. V. NLRB, 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)).

The Commissioner "must adequately explain in the record his reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent evidence." Ogden v. Bowen, 677 F. Supp 273, 278 (M.D. Pa. 1987) (citing Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581 (3d Cir. 1986)). The Third Circuit has held that an "ALJ must review all pertinent medical evidence and explain his conciliations and rejections." Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 122 (3d Cir. 2000). Similarly, an ALJ must also consider and weigh all of the non-medical evidence before him. Id. (citing Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 871, 873 (3d Cir. 1983)); Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 707 (3d Cir. 1981).

The Third Circuit has held that access to the Commissioner's reasoning is indeed essential to a meaningful court review:

Unless the [Commissioner] has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he has given to obviously probative exhibits, to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational.

Gober v. Matthews, 574 F.2d 772, 776 (3d Cir. 1978). Although an ALJ, as the fact finder, must consider and evaluate the medical evidence presented, Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 42, "[t]here is no requirement that the ALJ discuss in its opinion every tidbit of evidence included in the record," Hur v. Barnhart, 94 Fed. Appx. 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004). In terms of judicial review, a district court is not "empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder." Williams, 970 F.2d at 1182. Moreover, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court is entitled to satisfy itself that the Commissioner arrived at his decision by ...


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