Plummer v. Apfel, 98-1825

Decision Date05 August 1999
Docket NumberNo. 98-1825,98-1825
Citation186 F.3d 422
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Appeal from the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 96-cv-04586) District Judge: Honorable Bruce W. Kauffman [Copyrighted Material Omitted]

[Copyrighted Material Omitted] Eric J. Fischer (Argued), Suite 110, 8380 Old York Road, The Breyer Office Park, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania 19027, Attorney for Appellant

Joyce M.J. Gordon (Argued), Social Security Administration, SSA/OGC/Region III, 300 Spring Garden Street, 6th Floor, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, Attorney for Appellee

BEFORE: ALITO and McKEE, Circuit Judges, and SCHWARTZ, District Judge*


SCHWARTZ, Senior District Judge.

Evelyn Plummer asserts error in the denial of her application for social security disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.SS 401- 433. The District Court granted summary judgment to the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), affirming the Commissioner's final decision denying the appellant's claim. The District Court exercised jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. S 405(g), and this Court has jurisdiction to hear Plummer's appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. S 1291. For the reasons set forth below, we will remand to the Commissioner for further findings.

I. Background

Plummer is a high school graduate with an Associate's degree in business, with past work experience as a word processor and as a file clerk. She was twenty-six years old at the time of filing. On January 13, 1993, Plummer, unrepresented by counsel, filed an application for social security disability benefits, contending she suffered from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, deQuervain's tenosynovitis, as well as other symptoms.

A. Medical History

It is not necessary to review all of the evidence in the record pertaining to Plummer's medical impairments, as the Magistrate Judge's report and the ALJ's decision both summarize the pertinent medical history, which focuses on diagnoses of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis.1 See Plummer v. Chater, No. 96-4586 (E.D.Pa. filed May 8, 1997) (Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation) (adopted by the District Court on July 22, 1998). However, neither the ALJ nor the Magistrate Judge described the evidence in the record pertaining to the claimant's alleged mental impairments. We do so now.

The first mention of potential psychiatric problems in the record is an evaluation on November 26, 1991 by a psychotherapist at the Counseling Program of the Pennsylvania Hospital. The report states, "[she] experiences heart palpitations, sweating, hand tremors, shakiness, has depressive bouts in which she feels lonely and removed." Administrative Record ("Admin. R.") at 128. The doctor diagnosed her with generalized anxiety disorder. Id. On December 18, 1991, she was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks by Philadelphia Health Services. Id. at 132. Plummer's treatment records from Philadelphia Health Services on March 19, 1992, reveal a diagnosis of anxiety/panic disorder. Id. at 152. There is a medical note in her file from May 11, 1992, which states Plummer "has a psychiatric anxiety disorder." Id. at 146. The file also notes the patient "refuses to see a therapist." Id.

The next reference in the record to the claimant's mental health is a July 13, 1994 Arthritis Center Progress Note. The note states Plummer is "depressed over employment situation." Admin. R. at 206. She was prescribed Pamelor, an anti-depressant medication. Dr. Brent, her treating physician, also prescribed the anti-depressant Nortriptyline. Id. at 251. There is one final reference to the claimant's mental state in the record. Upon filing for reconsideration of her denied claim for benefits, the claimant filed a mandated Reconsideration Disability Report, noting, "mentally, I am depressed and I don't know what the future holds for me. I am taking an anti-depressant." Id. at 71.

B. Procedural Background

Plummer's initial application for disability benefits was denied on March 1, 1993. The hearing officer concluded Plummer was being treated for carpal tunnel syndrome, but that she had only mild limitation in motion which would not prevent her from working.

The unrepresented claimant requested reconsideration on April 9, 1993.2 She filed the mandated Reconsideration Disability Report with her appeal. On this form, she stated her physical condition had deteriorated and she was suffering from depression. Admin. R. at 71. The Commissioner denied her reconsideration appeal on June 1, 1993, concluding that the claimant retained good strength and dexterity in her hands leaving her able to perform most normal activities. The Commissioner did not evaluate the claimant's alleged mental impairments in determining that Plummer could return to employment. Id. at 50.

Plummer then filed a request for a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on June 10, 1993. A hearing took place on December 6, 1994, nearly eighteen months after the request was filed. According to the claimant's counsel, immediately before the hearing, the ALJ informed him she would not evaluate the claimant's psychiatric problems at the hearing. Further, the ALJ indicated to counsel that if he raised Plummer's alleged depression and anxiety, she would remand the case for a new reconsideration determination because it had not been previously evaluated. Given the already lengthy delay, and the financial difficulties associated with further delay, Plummer chose to proceed with the hearing. This conversation is summarized in the transcript of the administrative hearing. The ALJ asked the claimant's counsel:

[B]efore we went on the record we discussed there are some allegations and some references in a few of the doctors [sic] reports that there's an anxiety problem here and I gave you the opportunity to have that evaluated and you declined, is that correct?

ATTY: Yes, I discussed it with my client, your honor, and she wanted to proceed. She said she couldn't afford the delay.

Id. at 280. On April 29, 1995, the ALJ denied Plummer's application for disability benefits. She concluded the claimant suffered from a "severe" impairment which precluded her from returning to her past relevant work, but that she retained the residual functional capacity to perform modified light work, and could perform jobs which existed in significant numbers in the local and national economy. The ALJ also made a specific finding that Plummer did not suffer from a "severe" mental impairment which affects her ability to perform work-related activities, even though (as noted above) she did not allow the claimant to present any evidence as to her mental state.

The Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration declined further review on May 7, 1996, making the ALJ's determination an appealable final decision. On December 4, 1996, Plummer filed an action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. S 405(g) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania seeking judicial review of her denial of disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The District Court referred the case to a Magistrate Judge to determine if the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence. Upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the Magistrate Judge recommended the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be granted. The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge's report, and granted summary judgment for the Commissioner on July 22, 1998. Plummer now appeals the District Court's decision.

II. Discussion

On appeal, Plummer contends the ALJ erred in discounting the treating rheumatologist's diagnosis of her condition, and in relying on an incomplete hypothetical in her examination of the vocational expert. Plummer also argues the ALJ treated the evidence of her mental impairments improperly.

Congress provides for judicial review of the Commissioner's decisions to deny a claimant's application for disability benefits. 42 U.S.C. S 405(g). The role of this Court is identical to that of the District Court, namely to determine whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court is bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record. 42 U.S.C. S 405(g); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 841 (1971)). In order to establish a disability under the Social Security Act, a claimant must demonstrate there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any `substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Stunkard v. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988); 42 U.S.C. S 423(d)(1). A claimant is considered unable to engage in any substantial activity "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. S 423(d)(2)(A).

The Social Security Administration has promulgated regulations incorporating a sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability. 20 C.F.R. S 404.1520; Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1180 (3d Cir. 1992). In step one, the...

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