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Anna Marie Davis v. Commissioner of Social Security

July 5, 2012

ANNA MARIE DAVIS,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The plaintiff, Anna Marie Davis, applies for judicial review of the final decision of the defendant, Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (Dkt. entry no. 1, Compl.) The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court, for the reasons stated herein, will affirm the Commissioner's decision.

BACKGROUND

The plaintiff filed a claim for DIB on July 27, 2006, alleging that she became unable to work on March 31, 2004. (Administrative Record ("A.R.") at 138.) The Commissioner denied the claim on October 10, 2006. (Id. at 88-89.) The plaintiff filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 110.) An ALJ conducted a hearing on June 25, 2008, in which the plaintiff was represented by counsel. (Id. at 60-87.

The ALJ issued a decision on July 17, 2008, finding, inter alia, that (1) the plaintiff "meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2009"; (2) the plaintiff "has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2004, the alleged onset date of disability"; (3) the plaintiff "has the following severe impairments: fractured arm, back pain, and headaches (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c))"; (4) the plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526)"; (5) the plaintiff "has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b), except she can: use the right (dominant) upper extremity for gross but no fine manipulation; do simple and repetitive tasks due to loss of concentration because of pain from headaches and effects of pain medication; and, alternate sitting and standing at her election due to back problems"; (6) the plaintiff "is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 404.1565)" as a clerical worker because it "involved fine manipulations"; (7) the plaintiff "was thirty-six years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1563)"; (8) the plaintiff "has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 404.1564)"; (9) "transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability . . . (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2)"; (10) there are "jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the [plaintiff] can perform (20 C.F.R. 404.1560(c) and 404.1566)"; and (11) the plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 21, 2004 through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g))." (Id. at 90-101.)

The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to DIB payments. (Id. at 90-92.) The plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Administration Appeals Council ("Appeals Council") on September 6, 2008. (Id. at 133-34.) The Appeals Council remanded the plaintiff's case to the ALJ for, inter alia, further consideration of evidence and clarification of plaintiff's subjective complaints, mental impairments, and residual functional capacity. (Id. at 104.)

The ALJ held a supplemental hearing on March 25, 2009. (Id. at 26-51.) The ALJ then issued a decision on June 2, 2009, finding, inter alia, that (1) the plaintiff "meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2009";

(2) the plaintiff "has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 31, 2004, the alleged onset date"; (3) the plaintiff "has the following severe impairments: lumbosacral disc bulge with pain syndrome and status-post right arm fracture with residual pain syndrome (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(c))"; (4) the plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. 404.1525 and 404.1526)"; (5) the plaintiff "has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(a) except no continual and repetitive head movements; no continual and repetitive fine fingering manipulations; must alternate sit/stand election; and is limited, due to pain/medication, to simple, unskilled work which entails understanding, carrying out and remembering simple instructions; responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers; and usual work situations; and dealing with changes in a routine work setting"; (6) the plaintiff "is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. 404.1565)" including "clerical and other secretarial jobs"; (7) the plaintiff "was 36 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-44, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. 404.1563)"; (8) the plaintiff "has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English"; (9) "transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability . . . (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2)"; (10) "considering the [plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the [plaintiff] can perform (20 C.F.R. 404.1560(c) and 404.1566)"; and (11) the plaintiff "has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from March 21, 2004 through the date of this decision (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g))." (Id. at 16-21.)

The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to DIB. (Id. at 11-22.) The plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's June 2, 2009 decision by the Appeals Council on July 30, 2009. (Id. at 8.) The Appeals Council acknowledged receipt of additional evidence, found no reason to review the ALJ's decision, and denied plaintiff's request for review on April 19, 2011. (Id. at 1-5.)

DISCUSSION

I. Standard of Review

The Court may review a "final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security" in a disability proceeding. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court may affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner's decision with or without remanding the case for a rehearing. Id. However, this judicial review is limited. The Court must affirm the Commissioner's decision regarding disability benefits if an examination of the record reveals that the findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence. Id.; Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003). "Substantial evidence" in the context of a social security matter is defined as less than a preponderance of the evidence but "more than a mere scintilla," i.e., such evidence "as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotation and citations omitted). This standard "is deferential and includes deference to inferences drawn from the facts if they, in turn, are supported by substantial evidence." Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999).

Despite the deference given to administrative decisions under this standard, the Court "retain[s] a responsibility to scrutinize the entire record and to reverse or remand if the . . . decision is not supported by substantial evidence." Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981). Furthermore,

[a] single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [Commissioner] ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians) - or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion.

Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983). "That the record contains evidence which could have supported a different conclusion does not undermine" the Commissioner's decision provided that the record contains substantial evidence supporting that decision. Rivera v. Shalala, No. 94-2740, 1995 WL 495944, at *3 (D.N.J. July 26, 1995). The Commissioner is required, however, to address and reconcile medical evidence that would support a contrary conclusion. Schaudeck, 181 F.3d at 435.

II. Determining Eligibility for Disability Benefits

The term "disability" is defined as the "inability to engage in any 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). An individual is determined to be disabled if the individual's "physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [the individual] is not only unable to do his [or her] previous work but cannot, considering his [or her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

An ALJ employs a five-step process in determining whether a person is "disabled." In the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaged in "substantial gainful activity."

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is so engaged, the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and deny the application for disability benefits. Id. § 404.1520(b). If the claimant is not employed, the ALJ will consider the medical severity and duration of the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments in the second step. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). A "severe impairment" is one that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, including, inter alia, (1) sitting, lifting, and speaking, (2) responding appropriately to supervision and co-workers, and (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering instructions. Id. § 404.1521(a)-(b). A claimant not meeting this requirement is not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(c). ...


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