United States District Court, N.D. Illinois
March 5, 2004.
WILLIAM HANDY, Plaintiff,
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendants
The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES MORAN, Senior District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff William Handy brought this action in 1997 against the
Department of Social Security Administration (SSA), appealing its
decision to deny him disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleges
that since September 1991 he has been eligible for disability benefits
under sections 216(1) and 223 of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C. § 416(i) and 423, due to his rheumatoid arthritis.
Administrative Law Judge Richard Palewicz agreed with plaintiff in a
decision issued on April 9, 1996, in which he found plaintiff disabled as
of September l, 1991, and awarded him disability insurance benefits. Six
months later ALJ Palewicz released an amended decision stating that
plaintiff had been disabled only since February 18, 1994. The amended
decision also stated that Handy was not entitled to disability insurance
benefits because he had not established his disability while he was
insured for benefits.
Handy alleges that the ALJ's amended decision resulted from the
SSA's loss of paper work and improper processing of his claim. On April
14, 1998, we reversed the final decision of the SSA, remanded the case,
and ordered additional fact-finding pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Then, in July 2003, over five years after we remanded the case, plaintiff
filed a letter alleging that his case still had not been resolved. We
treated his pleading as a motion for relief from our order to remand and ordered the SSA to explain why such relief
would be improper.
The SSA filed a response and a procedural history of Handy's case,
explaining what happened since our remand in April 1998. Pursuant to the
court's order, the SSA reassigned plaintiff's case to ALJ Robert Asbille,
who found that Handy was not disabled until February 18, 1994. Plaintiff
contested these findings, filing written exceptions alleging that he had
been disabled since 1991, when he filed his first application for
disability. The SSA's Appeals Council took jurisdiction of the case on
January 9, 2003. After the Council proposed to find Handy eligible for
Supplemental Security Income (SSI), but ineligible for disability
insurance benefits, it allowed plaintiff 30 days to submit any comments
or new evidence for consideration before it issued a written decision.
Plaintiff did submit comments; however, the Appeals Council's decision
did not change. Just as ALJ Palewicz found in his amended decision and
ALJ Asbille found in his decision, the Council found that plaintiff was
disabled as of February 18, 1994, and was not entitled to disability
insurance benefits. The Council also concluded that Handy was entitled to
Now that we know the procedural history of plaintiff's case since
the court's 1998 remand, we treat his July 2003 letter as a request for
judicial review of the SSA's final decision. Plaintiff contests the
Appeals Council's finding that he was not disabled until February 18,
1994, and therefore ineligible for disability Insurance benefits.
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), "[a]ny individual, after any final decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he
was a party, . . . may obtain a review of such decision by a civil
action" in a federal district court A decision by the SSA's Appeals
Council is a final decision by the Commissioner.
20 C.F.R. § 404.900(a)(4)-(5); See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07
(2000). A review of this decision is not de novo for the "findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." See
42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence"
as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate
to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401
(1971); Maggard v. Apfel, 167 F.3d 376, 379 (7th Cir. 1999). The question
we ask when assessing the SSA's determination of the onset date of
plaintiff's disability is whether there is substantial evidence in the
record to support that date, not whether evidence could have supported an
earlier date. Henderson v. Apfel. 179 F.3d 507 (7th Cir. 1999). When
determining the onset date of a disability, the ALJ should consider "(1)
the claimant's allegations as to the onset date; (2) the date that the
claimant left work; and (3) medical evidence of onset" Id. at 513,
citing Stein v. Sullivan. 892 F.2d 43, 46 (7th Cir. 1990) and Nolen v.
Sullivan. 939 F.2d 516, 519 (7th Cir. 1991). Of these three factors, the
medical evidence is the most significant. Henderson. 179 F.3d at 513.
As the Appeals Council notes in its decision, it did not adopt the
ALJ's findings but, rather, considered the evidence and issued its own
findings on the issues in contention: whether the plaintiff filed an
application in 1991 and whether he was disabled prior to 1994. The
Council noted plaintiff's claim that he has been disabled since 1991, the
year he allegedly filed his first application with the SSA. The Council's
investigation found no evidence that plaintiff applied for disability
insurance benefits or SSI before 1994. Next, it discussed the lack of
medical evidence of disability prior to 1994. The Council's decision
states that "[a]ccording to the medical evidence of record and the
claimant's testimony given at the hearing, he does not have a medical
treatment record for 1991-1993." Medical findings from 1994, however,
showed that plaintiff suffered from significant limitation of movement
due to rheumatoid arthritis. Based on the medical evidence, the court found
plaintiff disabled as of February 18, 1994. Apparently, given that the
medical evidence did not establish a disability until 1994, the Appeals
Council did not address plaintiff's employment prior to this time (as ALJ
Palewicz did in his amended decision). The Council did not specify the
date that plaintiff stopped working; rather, it found that he had not
worked since February 18, 1994, the date he filed his application for
benefits. While the Council found plaintiff eligible for SSI, it denied
him disability insurance benefits because his insured status under Title
II ended June 30, 1992, over a year and-a-half before he established his
disability. In order to receive disability insurance benefits, an
individual must establish disability while in insured status.
42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(A), (c)(1); 20 C.F.R. § 404.131.
The Appeals Council's decision reveals substantial evidence to support
its finding that plaintiff was disabled as of February 18, 1994, but not
before. As the Council highlights, the record contains no evidence
supporting plaintiff's contention that he was disabled prior to 1994,
other than his own testimony; at times, even plaintiff's testimony runs
counter to a finding of disability before 1994. At his March 12, 1996,
hearing, plaintiff admitted to working at a variety of jobs between
September 1990 and December 1993. His Vocational Report dated March 8,
1994, lists six jobs he held during this period. Plaintiff's February
18, 1994, application for disability insurance benefits, also undermines
his attempts to prove that his disability began at an earlier date.
Though plaintiff contends that he filed an application for disability
benefits in 1991, his signed 1994 application attests to the fact that
"No previous application has been filed with the Social Security
Administration by or for me." Furthermore, the only medical evidence of
the onset of plaintiff's disability before 1994 is his disability report
statement that he saw Dr. Rudolpho Casaclang between September 1992 and November 1992. Even if true, this does not support a finding of
disability before the termination of his insured status on June 30,
1992. Nor is this single reference to a doctor's visit before February
18, 1994, enough to justify reversing the decision of the Appeals
Council. Given that the Council's determination of the onset date is
supported by the evidence, its ruling on plaintiff's eligibility for SSI
and ineligibility for disability insurance benefits is proper.
For the foregoing reasons, the decision of the Appeals Council is
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