The opinion of the court was delivered by: THOMAS GRIESA, Senior District Judge
Plaintiff William Benson, appearing pro se, appeals from a
final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security denying him
disability insurance benefits for the period from November 1,
1976 through February 3, 1987. Plaintiff started to receive
benefits in 1987, but the present case relates to the earlier
period for reasons which will be described.
Plaintiff claims in his present case that (1) the ALJ failed to
adequately develop the record and (2) the ALJ's decision is not
supported by substantial evidence. Defendant Commissioner moves
for a judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P.
12(c), arguing that the record was adequately developed and that
the denial was supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff pro
se opposes defendant's motion and moves for an order "granting a
trial on the merits." Plaintiff has also made a motion for
"dismissal of defense." Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings is denied.
Plaintiff's application for an order granting a trial on the
merits is denied, as is his application to dismiss the defense.
In 1999, plaintiff requested reconsideration of the denial of
his application for disability insurance benefits between 1976
and 1987 pursuant to the order in Dixon v. Sullivan,
54 F.3d 1019 (2d Cir. 1995). Under Dixon, claimants whose applications
for benefits were denied because their impairments were found to
be not severe were given an opportunity to have their
applications reconsidered. On June 5, 2000 the Regional
Commissioner of the Social Security Administration informed
plaintiff that, upon reconsideration, his condition was not
severe enough to be considered disabling. On June 6, 2000
plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.
Plaintiff alleged that he received treatment during the time
period at issue at the Dover Christian Nursing Home and Dover
General Hospital. The ALJ sent subpoenas seeking plaintiff's
medical records to the Dover Christian Nursing Home and St.
Clair's Hospital, formerly Dover General Hospital. The responses
to these subpoenas indicated that all the records were either
destroyed or otherwise unavailable. The ALJ stated that he found
the hospitals' responses to be credible. Plaintiff alleged that his old Social Security claims file,
including relevant medical records, was stolen in 1977 by Frank
Smith, a regional attorney in the Department of Health and Human
Services, and destroyed in 1983 by Annette Blum, another regional
attorney. The ALJ refused to inquire into these allegations on
the ground that there was no evidence to support plaintiff's
Plaintiff also requested that the ALJ issue subpoenas to
certain Government agencies, including the office of the
Secretary of Health and Human Services. The ALJ refused to issue
any such subpoenas because plaintiff produced no evidence to
suggest that these other agencies possessed any relevant records.
Finally, plaintiff requested that the records of a 1978
employment case brought in federal court by plaintiff against his
former employer be admitted into evidence. Plaintiff alleged that
the records of the 1978 case contained evidence of his
disability. The ALJ denied that request on the grounds that it
was not relevant to the question of whether plaintiff was
disabled between 1976 and 1987.
A hearing was held on March 21, 2002. On August 14, 2002 the
ALJ issued a decision which found that the plaintiff was not
disabled during the period at issue. The ALJ determined that the
available medical evidence failed to show a medically
determinable severe impairment for any continuous 12-month period
during the period at issue. On November 29, 2002 the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's decision.
The Appeals Council found no basis for granting plaintiff's
request for review and held that the ALJ's decision should stand
as the final decision of the Commissioner.
On February 3, 2003 plaintiff filed this action seeking review
of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
When reviewing a decision denying benefits under the Social
Security Act, this court must first satisfy itself that the
claimant has had a full and proper hearing. Echevarria v. Sec'y
of Health and Human Services, 685 F.2d 751, 755 (2d Cir. 1982).
Since the benefits proceeding is essentially non-adversarial, the
ALJ has a duty to affirmatively develop the record. Where, as
here, the claimant was unrepresented by counsel, the ALJ was
under a heightened duty to scrupulously and conscientiously probe
into and develop all the relevant facts. Id.
Furthermore, this is a most unusual Social Security case. A
1995 Court of Appeals decision in another case apparently opened
up the possibility of plaintiff claiming benefits for a period
starting almost twenty years earlier. Plaintiff is trying to
prove that the same disability he currently suffers from
Meneire's disease has afflicted him for nearly thirty years.
But medical records normally relied on have been destroyed. Thus,
plaintiff has unusual difficulties in proof regarding a claim he
is legally entitled to pursue. It has been plain from the outset of this case that there would
be no purpose in remanding the matter to the agency for the
purpose of inquiring further about hospital and nursing home
records or about possible records in the hands of Government
agencies. Also, the ALJ was certainly within bounds in refusing
to investigate the allegation of stolen records.
However, plaintiff has been particularly emphatic with this
court in asserting that a doctor in New Jersey has information
related to plaintiff's claims. In view of the unusual
circumstances of this case, the court communicated with that
doctor and was informed that he can provide no such ...