Townsend v. Secretary United States Department of Health and Human Services, 011514 FED3, 13-2380

Docket Nº:13-2380
Opinion Judge:PER CURIAM
Judge Panel:Before: SMITH, GARTH and ROTH, Circuit Judges
Case Date:January 15, 2014
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit




No. 13-2380

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit

January 15, 2014


Submitted Pursuant to Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) January 6, 2014

On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil No. 3-12-cv-02158) District Judge: Honorable Peter G. Sheridan

Before: SMITH, GARTH and ROTH, Circuit Judges



Claude Townsend appeals from the District Court's judgment affirming the Commissioner of Social Security's denial of his application for disability insurance benefits. For the reasons stated below, we will vacate and remand the matter.

Townsend was a 35-year-old bus driver for the New Jersey Transit Corporation when he was injured on the job in January 2008. He was out on disability leave until he was fired (for unrelated reasons) on August 28, 2008. Townsend filed for disability benefits alleging disability, as of that date, due to shoulder impingement syndrome and bilateral carpel tunnel syndrome. His application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Pursuant to Townsend's request, a hearing was held before an ALJ in November 2010. The ALJ rendered a decision concluding that Townsend was not entitled to benefits. Townsend sought review in the District Court, which affirmed the Commissioner's decision, and this appeal ensued.

We have jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. We exercise plenary review over the Commissioner's legal conclusions and review the ALJ's factual findings to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence. Allen v. Barnhart, 417 F.3d 396, 398 (3d Cir. 2005). The substantial evidence standard is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

A claimant suffers from a "disability" as defined in the Social Security Act if he is unable "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). The ALJ applied the five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. In doing so, the ALJ considered Townsend's physical and psychiatric examinations, medical treatment, and testimony. The ALJ determined that Townsend had a severe impairment of carpel tunnel syndrome, which limited his ability to perform basic work activities, but that he retained the residual functional capacity to perform light work. In so concluding, the ALJ determined Townsend's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the pain associated with his carpel tunnel syndrome to be less than fully credible.

On appeal, Townsend challenged the ALJ's determination, alleging that he was disabled for a closed period of disability -- August 28, 2008, until December 14, 2009. "In a 'closed period' case, the decision maker determines [whether] a new applicant for disability benefits was disabled for a finite period of time which started and stopped prior to the date of his decision." Pickett v. Bowen, 833 F.2d 288, 289 n.1 (11th Cir. 1987); see also Myers v. Richardson, 471 F.2d 1265, 1267 (6th Cir. 1972) (recognizing that a closed period of benefits may be awarded). A review of the hearing transcript indicates that the ALJ stated his intent to determine whether Townsend was entitled to benefits for this closed period of disability. See A.R. at 30-32. Nevertheless, the ALJ considered the disability period from August 28, 2008, until September 14, 2010, when Townsend resumed employment as a driver for disabled and handicapped people. Townsend had acknowledged that he was discharged from medical care with respect to all of his physical ailments on December 14, 2009, and "had residual functional capacity to perform light duty work" thereafter. Thus, the relevant disability period, which we conclude the ALJ should have considered, is from the onset date until that time, a period of approximately 16 months.1

Having limited consideration to the 16-month closed period of disability, we conclude that there is insufficient evidence to sustain the ALJ's decision. The ALJ listed sections of the record to support his credibility determination, a significant portion of which is outside the relevant closed disability period.2 First, he cited to a report from Chirag Shukla, M.D., indicating that Townsend was complaining of bilateral hand numbness, but had full strength in all of his extremities. This evidence is not substantial because the report was dated April 10, 2008, four months prior to the onset date of disability. The ALJ also cited a December 14, 2009 report by Daniel Kawash, a physician's assistant, which indicates that surgery had completely resolved the carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand, allowing Townsend to "fully flex and extend all digits; his wrist motion was full." The timing of this evidence, which coincides with the end...

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