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Milagros Chaluisan v. Commissioner of Social Security

August 22, 2011

MILAGROS CHALUISAN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

OPINION

This matter comes before the Court on the appeal by Plaintiff Milagros Chaluisan ("Plaintiff") of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") determining that she was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). This Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and, having considered the submissions of the parties without oral argument, pursuant to L. CIV. R. 9.1(b), finds that the Commissioner's decision will be affirmed.

I. BACKGROUND

The following facts are undisputed. Plaintiff was born in 1970. She has worked as a supermarket cashier. This case involves applications for supplemental security income benefits filed on October 21, 1982, April 28, 1992, and September 10, 1998. While this case has a substantial procedural history, for present purposes it is sufficient to note that: 1) the Commissioner has previously decided that Plaintiff was disabled during the period from October 1, 1982 through June 16, 1984; and 2) a hearing with regard to the question of disability after this period was held before Administrative Law Judge Dennis O'Leary ("ALJ O'Leary"), who found that Plaintiff was disabled as of June 18, 1998, but not during the period from June 17, 1984 through June 17, 1998. ALJ O'Leary thus denied in part Plaintiff's claim in an unfavorable decision issued on July 26, 2005. After that decision became final as the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, Plaintiff appealed the decision to this Court. The case was heard by Judge Cavanaugh, who issued an Opinion and Order on December 30, 2008 which remanded the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Plaintiff appealed this decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the appeal after the Appeals Council vacated the administrative decision that had been the subject of the appeal. Another hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Richard West ("ALJ West"), who examined the question of whether Plaintiff had been disabled between June 17, 1984 through June 17, 1998 (the "Interim Period"). In an unfavorable decision issued on August 10, 2010, ALJ West found that Plaintiff had not been disabled during the Interim Period. After that decision became final as the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, Plaintiff appealed the decision to this Court.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

This Court has jurisdiction to review the Commissioner*s decision under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This Court must affirm the Commissioner*s decision if it is "supported by substantial evidence." 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Stunkard v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 841 F.2d 57, 59(3d Cir. 1988); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is "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)). Substantial evidence "is more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." McCrea v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 360 (3d Cir. 2004). The reviewing court must consider the totality of the evidence and then determine whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner*s decision. See Taybron v. Harris, 667 F.2d 412, 413 (3d Cir. 1981).

The reviewing court is not "empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its conclusions for those of the fact-finder." Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied sub nom. Williams v. Shalala, 507 U.S. 924 (1993) (citing Early v. Heckler, 743 F.2d 1002, 1007 (3d Cir. 1984)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, this Court is bound by those findings, "even if [it] would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 35 (3d Cir. 2001); seealso Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999).

In determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner*s decision, the reviewing court must consider: "(1) the objective medical facts; (2) the diagnoses and expert opinions of treating and examining physicians on subsidiary questions of fact; (3) subjective evidence of pain testified to by the claimant and corroborated by family and neighbors; (4) the claimant*s educational background, work history and present age." Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 776 (4th Cir. 1973). "The presence of evidence in the record that supports a contrary conclusion does not undermine the Commissioner's decision so long as the record provides substantial support for that decision." Sassone v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 165 Fed. Appx. 954, 955 (3d Cir. 2006) (citing Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775).

B. Standard for Awarding Benefits Under the Act

The claimant bears the initial burden of establishing his or her disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5). To qualify for DIB or SSI benefits, a claimant must first establish that he is needy and aged, blind, or "disabled." 42 U.S.C. § 1381. A claimant is deemed "disabled" under the Act if he is unable to "engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987). Disability is predicated on whether a claimant's impairment is so severe that he "is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). Finally, while subjective complaints of pain are considered, alone, they are not enough to establish disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). To demonstrate that a disability exists, a claimant must present evidence that his or her affliction "results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically accepted clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3).

C. The Five-Step Evaluation Process

Determinations of disability are made by the Commissioner, pursuant to the five-step process outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987); Gist v. Barnhart, 67 Fed. Appx. 78, 81 (3d Cir. 2003).

At the first step of the evaluation process, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity.*fn1 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If a claimant is found to be engaged in such activity, the claimant is not "disabled" and the disability claim will be denied. Id.; Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141.

At step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(ii), (c). An impairment is severe if it "significantly limits [a claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." Id. In determining whether the claimant has a severe impairment, the age, education, and work experience of the claimant will not be considered. Id. ...


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