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EUGENE HUNTER v. MICHAEL J. ASTRUE

December 1, 2010

EUGENE HUNTER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION Eugene Hunter moves for a Judgment of Reversal against Defendant Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security, arguing that Defendant's final administrative decision fails to be supported by substantial evidence and is erroneous as matter of law. In the alternative, Plaintiff moves the Court, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to remand the case back to the Social Security Administration for a new administrative hearing. Defendant opposes Plaintiff's motion, and moves for Judgment of Affirmance, arguing that Defendant's decision is supported by substantial evidence and is free of legal error. The Court agrees with Defendant, and will therefore grant Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance and deny both Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment of Reversal and Plaintiff's alternative Motion to Remand pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

I. FACTS

Plaintiff is a fifty-year old man who resides in Washington D.C. See Pl.'s Mem. in Support of Mot. for J. of Reversal [Dkt. # 15] at 1--2. On February 22, 2007, Plaintiff suffered a right tibial plateau fracture, and the next day underwent open reduction and internal fixation surgery, followed by a regimen of physical therapy. Id. Plaintiff has not been employed since this injury in 2007. Id. Prior to that time, Plaintiff was employed as an assistant manager for a U-Haul facility, and prior to that, he was employed as a manager for both Greyhound and Consumer Value Stores ("CVS"). Id. at 2. Plaintiff has a high school education and no additional training. Id. at 2.

On August 15, 2007, based upon his tibial fracture, Plaintiff filed for Supplemental Security Income Benefits pursuant to the Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Id. at 1. Plaintiff's claim was denied, and then denied once again upon reconsideration. Id. On April 22, 2008, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. at 2. On September 14, 2009, a hearing was held, and on September 23, 2009, Plaintiff's claim was again denied by the ALJ in a written decision. Id. Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, and on November 9, 2009, it concluded that there was no basis for granting such a review. Id.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A. Standard of Review

Judicial review in Social Security cases is statutorily limited to determining whether the findings of the Commissioner are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705 (D.C. 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)).

B. Process to Determine Whether Individual is Considered "Disabled"

"Disabled" under the Social Security Act 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) (emphasis added).

For purposes of determining whether a person is disabled under (d)(1)(A), [a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity 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). Under the statute, a "'physical or mental impairment' is an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(3). As such, "[a]n individual shall not be considered to be under a disability unless he furnishes such medical and other evidence of the existence thereof as the Commissioner of Social Security may require." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A).

To determine whether an individual is "disabled" under the standard above, a five-step evaluation process is employed. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.905, 416.920. If an individual is found not disabled at any step, then movement to the next step is unnecessary. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4). First in the five-step process is determining whether an individual is engaged in substantial gainful work. Id. at § 416.920(a)(4)(i). If so, the individual is deemed not to be disabled, despite any medical evidence or other contraindications. Id. at § 416.920(b). Second, if not gainfully employed, an individual must have a severe impairment to be considered disabled. Id. at § 416.920(c). If an individual does not have a severe impairment (or multiple impairments) that last for a continuous twelve months, that individual does not have a disability. Id.; see also § 416.909 (requisite duration of disability is twelve consecutive months). Third, if an "impairment" suffered by an individual is of requisite duration and is listed in the Commissioner's regulations, or is equal to an impairment listed in the Commissioner's regulations, then the individual is considered disabled. Id. at § 416.920(d). If an individual's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, a residual functional capacity assessment will be conducted based upon relevant medical and other evidence, which will be utilized in the next two steps to determine the breadth and type of work the impairment might exclude or not exclude. Id. at § 416.920(e). Fourth, utilizing the functional capacity assessment, an individual who, though suffering from an "impairment," is capable of performing work that he or she has done in the past is deemed not to be disabled. Id. at § 416.920(f). Fifth, if the individual is unable to do past relevant work, an analysis will be conducted as to whether, considering the individual's functional capacity and vocational factors such as age, education, and work experience, the individual is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. at § 416.920(g); see also § 416.960(c). If the individual has the residual functional capacity to perform other work, the individual will be deemed not disabled; if the individual does not have such capacity to perform other work, the individual will be deemed disabled. Id.

III. ANALYSIS

"In a disability proceeding, the ALJ 'has the power and the duty to investigate fully all matters in issue, and to develop the comprehensive record required for a fair determination of disability.'" Simms v. Sullivan, 877 F.2d 1047, 1050 (D.C. Cir. 1989) (quoting Diabo v. Sec'y of HEW, 627 F.2d 278, 281 (D.C. Cir. 1980)). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ abandoned his duty to develop the record, which resulted in a decision that was not supported by substantial evidence. More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ (1) failed "to obtain pertinent medical evidence;" (2) failed to "inquire into the Plaintiff's mental illness, despite the fact that the Plaintiff has alleged depression and mental stress in his Disability Report, and reported that he had been receiving psychiatric treatment;" and (3) failed to "adequately pursue or inquire into the Plaintiff's abilities to sit, stand, walk, lift, carry, or bend, or to perform any of the exertional requirements of work." Mot. for J. of Reversal [Dkt. # 15] at 5--6 (citations omitted).

The record does not support Plaintiff's assertions. The ALJ properly went through the five-step analysis, determining (1) that Plaintiff was not gainfully employed; (2) that he does have a severe impairment; (3) that the impairment is not listed or equal to a listed impairment within the Commissioner's regulations; (4) that he cannot perform past relevant work; and (5) that, despite not being able to do past relevant work, he could perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. In doing so, the ALJ ...


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