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FUERST v. SECRETARY OF HEALTH

February 14, 1973

Louis FUERST, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
SECRETARY OF HEALTH, EDUCATION AND WELFARE, Defendant


Bauman, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: BAUMAN

MEMORANDUM

BAUMAN, District Judge.

 This is an action brought under § 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review a final decision of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare denying plaintiffs disability benefits under 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i) and 423. Both sides have moved for summary judgment, and I am satisfied that there is no genuine issue of material fact to be tried.

 The claimant, Leah Fuerst, was born on April 12, 1939. After her college graduation she was employed as a full time teacher from 1960 to 1963. Starting in September, 1964 she taught part time only, in order to give greater attention to her children, the first of whom had been born in 1963 and the second in 1964. (Tr. 52). *fn1" She held her last position, as a Hebrew teacher at the Prospect Heights Jewish Center High School, from September, 1967 to April 30, 1969, earning during the latter school year between $190 and $197 per month.

 Early during the 1968 summer recess, Mrs. Fuerst was admitted to the James Ewing Hospital, New York City, with carcinoma of the left breast and a radical mastectomy was performed. Some two weeks later she was discharged from the hospital, but her fate seems by then to have been sealed.

 On May 7, 1969, Mrs. Fuerst was admitted to the Beth Israel Medical Center for further surgery where a bilateral oophorectomy *fn2" and a bilateral adrenalectomy *fn3" were performed. She was discharged on June 6, 1969 with the recommendation that she undergo cobalt therapy. (Tr. 60-62).

 Mrs. Fuerst's treating physician noted in a report dated November 11, 1969, that she had not responded to the second operation, and stated that she was totally disabled. She died on June 2, 1970.

 The Fuerst family's journey through HEW's bureaucratic maze began October 30, 1969, when Mrs. Fuerst filed an application for the establishment of a period of disability and for disability insurance benefits alleging that she had become unable to work that April. Her application was granted and her period of disability was found to commence on May 2, 1969. She then filed a request for reconsideration on December 19, 1969, asking that her disability starting date be fixed in June, 1968, following her first operation. Some functionary gifted with a combination of divine guidance and a computerized mind moved the onset date of her disability from May 2 to April 30, 1969.

 Mrs. Fuerst then sought, on April 4, 1970, to have her application reviewed de novo by a hearing examiner of the Department's Bureau of Hearings and Appeals. Acting with all deliberate speed the hearing was held in August, 1970, by which time she had died, and her husband made a brief presentation at the hearing. On September 9, 1970, the hearing examiner's decision fixed the onset date at June 15, 1968. Although the amount involved was $3,000, the Appeals Council of the Department, jealous guardians of the public purse, on its own motion decided that such action required review. On November 4, 1970, it reversed the hearing examiner and established the onset date as April 30, 1969. This decision is the final decision of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare of which review is sought here.

 Unfortunately, the sole question before this Court is whether the decision of the Secretary fixing the onset date of the disability is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Gold v. Secretary of HEW, 463 F.2d 38 (2nd Cir. 1972); Franklin v. Secretary of HEW, 393 F.2d 640 (2nd Cir. 1968); Kerner v. Flemming, 283 F.2d 916 (2nd Cir. 1960).

 The relevant provisions of 42 U.S.C. § 423, set out in the margin, *fn4" state, in essence, that a claimant must meet a twofold test in order to qualify for disability benefits. First, he must demonstrate a "medically determinable physical or mental impairment,", and second, he must show that this impairment prevents him from engaging in substantial gainful activity. See Thomas v. Celebrezze, 331 F.2d 541 (4th Cir. 1964); Harris v. Richardson, 450 F.2d 1099 (4th Cir. 1971).

 It is undisputed that breast cancer, from which the claimant died less than two years after its first diagnosis, is a medically determinable impairment. *fn5" Nevertheless, it is well settled that if a person works during the so-called period of disability rather than just sitting waiting for death, this may demonstrate a capacity to engage in substantial gainful employment in spite of the medical evidence. See Simmons v. Celebrezze, 362 F.2d 753 (4th Cir. 1966); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1532(a). For example, in Price v. Richardson, 443 F.2d 347 (5th Cir. 1971), the claimant suffered from terminal cancer for five years prior to his death. Although he was unable to engage in strenuous physical activity, he came to work six days a week, and supervised the daily operations of the meat processing business he owned. The Court thus found that even though he bore the burden of a terminal illness, the claimant was engaged in substantial gainful activity. Consequently, in the case at bar, a mere demonstration of the gravity of Mrs. Fuerst's affliction does not entitle her to disability benefits.

 In light of the circumstances of this claimant's employment, I am constrained to find that during the year in dispute she was engaged in substantial gainful activity. In reaching such a conclusion I need not rely on the provision of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1534(b), *fn6" promulgated pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(4), *fn7" which states that earnings in excess of $140 per month are deemed to demonstrate a capacity to engage in substantial gainful activity. There has been considerable confusion over the precise meaning of the "unless" clause in that regulation; see Hedge v. Richardson, 458 F.2d 1065 (10th Cir. 1972) and Wilson v. Richardson, 455 F.2d 304 (4th Cir. 1972). But in deciding this motion I need not reach the question of whether Mrs. Fuerst's work falls within that ill defined exception or whether her salary of at least $190 per month in 1968-1969 school year in itself precluded her claim.

 The plaintiffs' claim here must fail simply because there is no evidence that the work in which Mrs. Fuerst engaged prior to June 26, 1968 differed in any respect from the work she did in the following school year. Since 1964 she had taught on a part time basis, and continued to do so in 1968-1969. Actually, her teaching load was heavier at the Prospect Heights Jewish Center in 1968-1969 than it had been in the previous year. Her Work Activity Report (Tr. 45-48) indicates that in 1967-1968 she taught 50 minutes per day, 4 days per week, and that in 1968-1969 she taught more than twice that -- 100 minutes per day, 5 days per week. The language of 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A), supra at footnote 4, suggests that a disability claimant must at the very least be unable to engage in his previous work. All of the reported cases, moreover, uphold this ...


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