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Martin v. Commissioner of Social Security

March 23, 2009

RE: MARTIN
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William J. Martini Judge

LETTER OPINION

Dear Counsel:

Plaintiff Patricia Martin brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of the Social Security Act, seeking a review of a final determination by the Commissioner of Social Security denying Plaintiff's application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). The Court did not hold oral argument. Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Since the parties are familiar with the procedural history and facts of this case, the Court will recount the events in summary fashion. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI on October 10, 2000, alleging a disability based on back pain, knee pain, obesity, and depression since January 1, 2000. (R. 83-85.) She was denied initially and upon reconsideration. On April 26, 2002, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Dennis O'Leary determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 9-20.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's obesity and bilateral knee arthritis constituted severe impairments. (R. 15-16.) He also found that Plaintiff's depression and back-pain were non-severe. (Id.) Based on these impairments, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff retained the residual functioning capacity ("RFC") to return to her past relevant work experience. The Appeal Council affirmed the ALJ's decision on October 4, 2002. (R. 3-4.)

Plaintiff sought review in federal court. On August 5, 2004, the Honorable William H. Walls found that Plaintiff's depression constituted a severe impairment and that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical records of two examining psychologists.

(R. 290-91, 293.) Since the ALJ did not consider how depression impacted Plaintiff's RFC and her ability to perform past relevant work, Judge Walls remanded the matter for further consideration. (R. 294.)

Following remand, the ALJ issued a second decision denying benefits. The ALJ determined on April 4, 2005 that Plaintiff's back pain, knee pain, obesity, and depression constituted severe impairments, but not severe enough to meet or medically equal, either singly or in combination, any of the impairments listed at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix I (the "Listings"). (R. 276.) The ALJ also determined that Plaintiff's hypertension and headaches were non-severe. (Id.) The ALJ adjudged that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform simple, repetitive work at the sedentary exertion level, subject to moderate limitations in social functions and concentration. Based on this RFC, Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (R. 279, 282.) At step five, the ALJ relied upon the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), who stated that 50,000 jobs existed in the national economy for someone with Plaintiff's RFC. (R. 280-81.) The ALJ thus concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 281, 283.)

Approximately three years later, on May 29, 2008, the Appeals Council affirmed this decision. (R. 255-57.) On July 18, 2008, Plaintiff filed the present action.

DISABILITY EVALUATION

A reviewing court must affirm an ALJ's decision if based on the correct legal standard and if the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence from the record.

42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted).

The Social Security Administration employs a five-step process to determine whether an applicant is entitled to benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. First, the Commissioner inquires into whether the claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity since his or her alleged disability onset date. Id. §§ 404.1520(b), 416.920(b). If not, the Commissioner evaluates whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments qualify as "severe." Id. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). If the claimant possesses a severe impairment, the Commissioner questions whether the impairment meets or equals the criteria of an impairment found in the Listings. If so, the claimant automatically receives benefits. If not, the Commissioner proceeds to step four. Id. §§ 404.1520(d), 416.920(d). In step four, the Commissioner considers whether, despite the severe impairment, the claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work. Id. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f), 416.920(e)-(f). The claimant bears the ultimate burden of establishing steps one through four. At step five, the burden shifts to the Social Security ...


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