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Hartzell v. Astrue

September 28, 2010

ADAM HARTZELL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Noel L. Hillman, U.S.D.J.

OPINION

HILLMAN, District Judge

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 for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("Social Security benefits") under Title II and Title XVI 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 Plaintiff was not entitled to retroactive child insurance benefits dating back to his date of adoption in 1988. For the reasons stated below, this Court will affirm that decision.

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff began living with his adoptive mother two days after his birth on April 16, 1987 and was legally adopted on May 13, 1988. His mother had been awarded benefits in December 1978, and began receiving them retroactive to December 1977. Although her son would have been entitled to child's benefits from as early as 1988, it was not until September 2005 that his mother became aware of the possibility that her son could receive child's benefits based on her disabled status.

On October 17, 2005, Plaintiff filed an application for child's insurance benefits. He requested benefits dating back to his adoption date in 1988. On December 27, 2005, the Commissioner approved Plaintiff's application, but pursuant to regulation only awarded Plaintiff one year of retroactive benefits. That year of retroactive benefits was truncated to September 2004 through June 2005 because Plaintiff had turned 18 and graduated from high school as of June 2005. Plaintiff was paid $6,122.00.

Plaintiff requested reconsideration of the Commissioner's decision, arguing that he was entitled to benefits dating back to 1998 because the Commissioner had provided Plaintiff's mother with "misinformation." The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's request. Plaintiff requested a hearing, but because there was no factual dispute, the Plaintiff submitted a written argument to an ALJ in lieu of a hearing. On May 8, 2007, the ALJ issued his decision denying Plaintiff's claim. A request for review by the Appeals Council was filed on May 21, 2007, and that request was denied on July 28, 2009. Plaintiff now seeks this Court's review.

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 Disability Insurance Benefits. 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)). 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. Apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, however, a reviewing court is entitled to satisfy itself that the Commissioner arrived at his decision by application of the proper legal standards. Sykes, 228 F.3d at 262; Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983); Curtin v. Harris, 508 F. Supp. 791, 793 (D.N.J. 1981).

B. Governing Regulations

Under the Social Security Act, a claimant must file a written application on a form prescribed by the Commissioner to receive benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 402(a)(3); 20 C.F.R. § 404.603. The Act further provides that a child's benefits may be paid for up to 12 months immediately before the month in which the application was filed. 42 U.S.C. § 402(j)(3); 20 C.F.R. § 404.621(a). A person may be "deemed" to have filed an application for benefits on an earlier date, however, if the failure to apply was due to "misinformation" provided to such person by any of the Commissioner's officers or ...


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