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Buckley v. Astrue

August 3, 2010


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


Before the Court is Maryann Buckley's ("Plaintiff") appeal of the final decision of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying Plaintiff's request for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") from her amended alleged onset date of September 1, 1998 through her date last insured, December 31, 2002. The Court has jurisdiction to review this matter under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). This matter was adjudicated without oral argument pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b). As the Administrative Record provides substantial evidence in support of the Commissioner's decision that Plaintiff was not disabled, the Court affirms.


A.Procedural History

Plaintiff first filed for DIB on March 24, 1999, alleging that she became disabled on February 3, 1997.*fn1 (Administrative Record ("R.") at 434.) The New Jersey Department of Labor Division of Disability Services ("state agency") denied Plaintiff's claim on July 1, 1999. Plaintiff sought reconsideration of the agency decision and was again denied DIB on October 12, 1999. (Id.) Plaintiff filed a timely appeal, and was granted a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.929 (2010). (R. at 434.) A hearing on Plaintiff's claim was held before the Honorable Richard L. DeSteno, A.L.J., in Newark, New Jersey, on February 8, 2000. (Id.) Judge DeSteno denied Plaintiff's DIB claim on May 15, 2000. Plaintiff requested a review of the decision by the Appeals Council on July 18, 2000. (Id.)

In the interim, before requesting an appeal of Judge DeSteno's decision, Plaintiff filed a new claim for DIB on June 5, 2000. (Id.) This new claim was granted by the state agency on December 22, 2000 finding that Plaintiff was "disabled," and entitled to DIB, as of May 17, 2000. (Id.)

Despite being awarded DIB on her second claim, Plaintiff's appeal of Judge DeSteno's decision denying her original DIB claim remained pending before the Appeals Council. On September 6, 2001, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review of her original disability claim. (Id.) Plaintiff appealed this decision to the United State District Court for the District of New Jersey on November 8, 2001. (Id.) Upon stipulation of the parties, the Honorable William H. Walls, U.S.D.J., issued a consent order remanding the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. (R. at 378-82.) The Commissioner consolidated Plaintiff's two claims and remanded the matter to Judge DeSteno under 20 C.F.R. § 404.977 (2010). (R. at 383.)*fn2

Judge DeSteno held a second hearing on the consolidated claims and, on April 16, 2004, denied Plaintiff DIB. He found that Plaintiff was not disabled at any point during the relevant period and effectively overturned the state agency's determination on the second claim. (R. at 325.) Plaintiff again sought review of Judge DeSteno's decision before the Appeals Council.

The Appeals Council denied that request for review on July 28, 2005. (R. at 291.) Plaintiff filed a timely appeal in the District of New Jersey, and on September 6, 2006, the Honorable Anne E. Thompson, U.S.D.J., issued an opinion remanding the case back to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Judge Thompson found that Plaintiff was entitled to a full and fair hearing before a different ALJ. (R. at 445-53.)

A supplemental hearing was held before the Honorable Dennis O'Leary, A.L.J., on April 24, 2007. Judge O'Leary issued an opinion denying Plaintiff's claims for DIB on June 5, 2007. Judge O'Leary found that Plaintiff was "not disabled" under the Social Security Act at any time between September 1, 1998 and December 31, 2002. (R. at 434-43). Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council on July 5, 2007. The Appeals Council declined to assume jurisdiction, rendering Judge O'Leary's denial the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. at 424-26.)

Plaintiff subsequently filed this action challenging the Commissioner's decision, thus bringing the matter of her DIB before this Court for the third time since 2001.

B.Factual History

Maryann Buckley was employed as a full-time import manager from December 1975 to February 1997. (R. at 56.) She has a high school education and has not completed any special job training or vocational school. (Id. at 61.)

As a full-time import manager, Plaintiff was responsible for purchasing imported products, as well as expediting, buying, and negotiating the price for new products. (Id.) She was responsible for overseeing many elements of the importing process and reported directly to the president of her company. (R. at 492.) Plaintiff described her position as an "office job" though she went into the warehouse on a daily basis. (Id. at 493.) Plaintiff's work activities included working on the computer, writing reports, communicating with vendors, and visiting the warehouse. (Id.) In her initial filing with the Commissioner, Plaintiff claimed that during her average work day she walked for one hour, stood for one hour, stooped for 30 minutes, wrote/typed/handled small objects for an hour and a half, and sat for four hours. (R. at 56.) No significant lifting or carrying was required. (Id.)

Plaintiff wrote in her initial filing for DIB that she stopped working because of her illness, (R. at 55), yet in her 2007 supplemental hearing before Judge O'Leary she stated that she stopped working because she was "downsized." (R. at 493). Plaintiff held her position as a full-time import manager for 21 years, (id), and is now collecting retirement benefits, (id. at 488).

In Plaintiff's original filing for DIB she described continuous aching, stabbing, and throbbing pain in her knees and spine. (R. at 49.) According to Plaintiff's pain report, she felt pain when walking, sitting "in a downward position," doing household chores, and when moving her foot from the gas pedal to the brake. (Id.) Plaintiff stated that sometimes elevating her legs would mitigate the severity of the pain, "but pain is always there." (Id.) Plaintiff could not take many pain control medications because she was on Coumadin, a blood thinner, for her atrial fibrillation. (R. at 266.)

Additionally, Plaintiff described intermittent chest pain that occurred on a monthly basis and lasted for 30 minutes per occurrence. (R. at 51.) Plaintiff claimed that her chest pain caused shortness of breath and she would lie down to minimize it. (Id.) Plaintiff indicated that her chest pain was caused by climbing stairs, medications, stress, lack of sleep, and other "unknown reasons." (Id.)

Plaintiff was first bothered by her conditions in February 1993, but she continued to work for the next four years, until February 1997, when she was downsized. (Id. at 55.) Dr. Richard Lesko, an internist, began seeing and treating Plaintiff for her leg pain in 1995; Dr. Andrew Beamer, a cardiologist, began treating Plaintiff's heart condition in 1994. (Id. at 57.)

Plaintiff lived with her daughter during the time of her alleged disability. (R. at 71.) Plaintiff prepared her own breakfast, stood for twenty minutes to begin dinner preparations, paid the bills, and showered without assistance, though her daughter listened to ensure she did not fall. (Id. at 71-76, 275) Plaintiff's daughter took care of household maintenance, shopping, and cooking main meals; another daughter drove Plaintiff to doctors' appointments. (Id. at 74-75.) Plaintiff was able to talk on the phone, read, and watch TV. (Id.)


A.Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), a District Court reviews an ALJ's decision to determine whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the challenged decision. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). An ALJ's findings of fact are binding upon the Court so long as they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986). The Supreme Court has defined substantial evidence as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). The Third Circuit has further explained that substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance of the evidence. Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health & Human Serv., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988) (applying the substantial evidence definition to a Social Security appeal). The Court must determine whether the Commissioner reached a reasonable decision, but it is not tasked with undertaking a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision. Mirabile v. Comm'r of Social Sec., No. CIV.A. 07-3102, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101942, at *8 (D.N.J. 2008); see also Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992).

The Court has an obligation to review both the medical and vocational evidence in its totality. Daring v. Heckler, 727 F.2d 64, 70 (3d Cir. 1984). As part of its review, the Court must take into account any information in the record that fairly detracts from the evidence relied upon by the ALJ. Schonewolf v. Callahan, 972 F. Supp. 277, 284 (D.N.J. 1997). "The Commissioner has a corresponding duty to facilitate the court's review," and when faced with conflicting evidence, there must be an adequate explanation in the record articulating the Commissioner's reasons for rejecting or discrediting competent evidence. Mirabilie, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101942, at *8. The Third Circuit has stressed that a meaningful court review requires a full explanation of the Commissioner's decision-making:

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 ...

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