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Porter v. Barnhart

September 26, 2007

VIRGIE PORTER PLAINTIFF,
v.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable David H. Coar

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Virgie Porter ("Porter" or "Plaintiff") applied for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") from the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). After the SSA denied her application and her reconsideration request, Plaintiff asked for a hearing. The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who conducted the hearing concluded that Porter was not disabled for DIB purposes. After the Social Security Appeals Council denied Porter's request for review, she sought judicial review of the ALJ's decision, by filing a complaint against SSA Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart ("Barnhart" or "Defendant"). At summary judgment, this Court found that there was an inadequate basis for the ALJ's ruling and remanded the case for additional proceedings. On remand, the ALJ produced a page that had been missing from the record, the absence of which was key to this Court's finding that there was an inadequate basis for the ALJ's conclusion. Now before this Court is Plaintiff's Motion to Alter or Amend the Final Judgment and Award Her Disability Benefits (Doc. No. 56), brought in light of this new evidence under Fed. R. Civ. P. 60(b)(2). After reviewing Plaintiff's case for reconsideration on the merits, Plaintiff's motion is DENIED.

1. FACTS

The factual and procedural posture of this matter has already been described by this Court in its summary judgment opinion dated March 26, 2006 (Doc. No. 46) ("Summ. J. Op."). Therefore, for present purposes this Court need only summarize the relevant facts.

The ALJ was asked to consider "whether the claimant is entitled to a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Sections 216(I) and 223 of the Social Security Act. The specific issue is whether she is under a disability, which is defined as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months."

Applying the standard five-step DIB analysis of 20 CFR § 404.1420, the ALJ found that "claimant has at least one medically determinable severe impairment within the meaning of the Regulations," including "hypertension, non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis of the left shoulder, a personality disorder NOS, a mood disorder with depressive features and anxiety secondary to medical complaints, and a pain disorder with both a medical condition and psychological factors." At step three of this analysis, however, he concluded that none of these impairments were sufficiently severe to qualify Plaintiff for presumptive disability under Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 ("Appendix 1"). Then, at step four, the ALJ found that her residual functional capacity ("RFC") would allow her to perform "past relevant work," namely, the ownership and administration of a cleaning service. On this basis, Plaintiff was deemed not disabled.

In this Court's summary judgment opinion, we found that the ALJ had failed to adequately support his conclusions regarding Plaintiff's ability to work according to the applicable terms of Appendix 1. In light of the missing page, this Court was nonetheless "unable to reverse the ALJ decision and award benefits to Porter. The Court reache[d] this conclusion with great reluctance because the loss of a portion of the ALJ's decision prejudices Porter by delaying an ultimate decision on her claim and forcing her to relitigate at least part of that claim. That portion of the ALJ's decision that is contained in the record displays a lack of analysis or logical link between the evidence and the ALJ's ultimate findings." Summ. J. Op. at 15. As a result, the Court remanded the matter to the SSA pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for additional proceedings pursuant to the opinion. During subsequent proceedings related to fees, this Court repeated its frustration over the SSA's failure to create a complete record, stating that "only the incompleteness of the record prevented this Court from reversing the ALJ and awarding benefits to Porter." Fees Op. at 4.

On remand, the ALJ produced the missing page to the parties. In light of this, Plaintiff has moved for reconsideration of this Court's prior opinion, arguing that the case should be reversed in light of the SSA's "egregious mishandling of this matter and the delay and wasted time and effort engendered by such mishandling," as well as the strong language of this Court's prior opinions on this issue.

2. LEGAL STANDARD

Rule 60(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for relief from a final judgment due to "newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered" earlier. Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b)(2).

Defendant has conceded that the new evidence makes vacation of the original remand order appropriate and urges this Court to simply consider the case on its merits and affirm or reverse and grant benefits as it sees fit. While this Court is inclined to do so and avoid any additional proceedings in this already prolonged matter, for the reasons stated below the failings discussed at summary judgment remain and the remand order will stand.

The Agency's final decision is subject to judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which provides that the findings "as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." The district court will uphold the ALJ's ultimate decision as long as the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence and there are no errors of law. Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 869 (7th Cir. 2000) (citing Rohan v. Chater, 98 F.3d 966, 970 (7th Cir. 1996)). 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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). The district court reviews the entire administrative record, but does not reweigh evidence, resolve conflicts, decide credibility questions, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. Clifford, 227 F.3d at 869. This is a "deferential, but not entirely uncritical" standard of review, because the ALJ's decision will not stand "if it lacks evidentiary support or [contains] an inadequate discussion of the issues." Golembiewski v. Barnhart, 322 F.3d 912, 915 (7th Cir. 2003). This Court may not set aside an inference made by the ALJ simply because we find the opposite conclusion more reasonable or question the factual basis. Pancake v. AMAX Coal Co., 858 F.2d 1250, 1255 (7th Cir.1988).

3. ANALYSIS

This Court must consider whether the page now returned to the record resolves uncertainties in the ALJ's opinion so as to make remand unnecessary. The parties also urge this Court to ...


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