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Sarah Juliana Straehle v. Michael J. Astrue

August 7, 2012

SARAH JULIANA STRAEHLE, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Seybert, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Plaintiff Sarah Juliana Straehle ("Plaintiff") commenced this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), challenging Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's (the "Commissioner") denial of her application for disability insurance benefits.

Presently before the Court is the Commissioner's motion for judgment on the pleadings. For the following reasons, the Commissioner's motion is GRANTED, and Plaintiff's Complaint is DISMISSED

BACKGROUND

On January 18, 2002, Plaintiff submitted an application with the Social Security Administration (the "SSA") for disability insurance benefits alleging that she had become disabled on March 28, 1998. (Tr. 24.) Plaintiff included with her application records reflecting earnings for the following years: 1974-1977, 1979, 1981-1985, 1987-1988, 1993, and 1995-1998. (Tr. 40.) In 2005, Plaintiff sought to supplement her application with records reflecting alleged earnings in 1994. (Tr. 37-39.) On April 18, 2006, the SSA denied Plaintiff's application, stating that: "You do not qualify because you have not worked long enough under Social Security to receive benefits." (Tr. 43.) The SSA did not accept Plaintiff's alleged earnings from 1994. (Tr. 43.) Plaintiff sought reconsideration of the SSA's decision (Tr. 46-49), which was denied on June 20, 2006 (Tr. 50-52).

On October 16, 2006, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Tr. 56-57.) The hearing was held on February 18, 2009 before Administrative Law Judge Seymour Rayner (the "ALJ"). (Tr. 115.) Plaintiff, appearing pro se, testified that, in 1994 while she was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, she earned $2,700 from the University for tutoring other students. (Tr. 124, 127.) She did not file a tax return for that income, however, until 2004. (Tr. 78, 129.) On March 31, 2009, the ALJ issued his decision finding that Plaintiff was not eligible for disability insurance benefits. (Tr. 24-26.) The ALJ stated that although Plaintiff was in fact disabled, she failed to satisfy the "insured status requirements" of Sections 216(i) and 223 of the Social Security Act--i.e., she did not work the requisite number of quarters prior to the onset of her disability to qualify for disability insurance benefits. (Tr. 24-26.) In so finding, the ALJ refused to consider the evidence of Plaintiff's alleged earnings in 1994 because such evidence was time-barred. (Tr. 25-26.)

On June 10, 2009, Plaintiff filed a request for Appeals Council review of the ALJ's decision (Tr. 20), which was granted on August 28, 2009 (Tr. 14-17). Plaintiff was granted multiple extensions of time to submit any evidence and/or argument in favor of her claim. On December 15, 2009, she filed a letter stating that she operated a kite store from 1990 through 1997 (Tr. 97), and, on January 21, 2010, she filed a letter stating that she performed additional work in 1989, 1993, and 1994 (Tr. 108-114). On February 26, 2010, the Appeals Council issued its decision affirming (with modification) the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff was not entitled to disability insurance benefits because she failed to establish the requisite quarters of coverage. (Tr. 9-11.) The Appeals Council found that Plaintiff's earnings from 1994 were "excluded from Social Security coverage" pursuant to Section 210(a)(10) of the Social Security Act and 20 C.F.R. § 404.1028 and, thus, could not be credited. (Tr. 10.) The Appeals Council also refused to credit Plaintiff's alleged earnings in 1989, 1993, and 1994 because "[w]hile the claimant asserts that she has evidence to substantiate her various assertions that she is entitled to additional earnings and, therefore, quarters of coverage, she has not submitted any of that evidence as required by 20 CFR 404.822(a)." (Tr. 11.)

On March 10, 2010, Plaintiff filed a request with the Appeals Council to reopen the record and provided documentation to substantiate her claim of earnings in 1989, 1993 and 1994. (Tr. 132.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to reopen, finding that "[a]lthough the evidence submitted is new, it does not materially alter the prior decision or warrant reopening because it does not establish that Administration records of [her] earnings [were] incorrect or that [she is] entitled to additional quarters of coverage." (Tr. 5.)

On May 10, 2010, Plaintiff commenced this federal action and simultaneously filed a motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis. (Docket Entries 1-2.) On June 22, 2010, the Court granted Plaintiff's motion to proceed in forma pauperis. (Docket Entry 5.) On September 30, 2010, the Commissioner answered the Complaint (Docket Entry 9), and on November 29, 2010, the Commissioner moved for judgment on the pleadings (Docket Entry 11). The Commissioner's motion is currently pending before the Court. Plaintiff did not file an opposition.

DISCUSSION

Only the final decision of the Commissioner is subject to judicial review. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Where, as here, the Appeals Council reviews the decision of the ALJ, the Appeals Council's decision constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Accordingly, the Court treats the Appeals Council's decision dated February 26, 2010 as the final decision of the Commissioner--the only decision subject to judicial review.

I. Standard of Review

In reviewing the final decision of the Commissioner, this Court will not determine de novo whether Plaintiff is in fact entitled to disability insurance benefits. Thus, even if the Court may have reached a different decision, it must not substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Jones v. Sullivan, 949 F.2d 57, 59 (2d Cir. 1991). Instead, the Court must determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by "substantial evidence in the record as a whole or are based on an erroneous legal standard." Curry v. Apfel, 209 F.3d 117, 122 (2d Cir. 2000) (internal quotations marks and citation omitted), superseded by statute on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560. If the Court finds that substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's decision, the decision will be upheld, even if evidence to the contrary exists. See Johnson v. Barnhart, 269 F. Supp. 2d 82, 84 (E.D.N.Y. 2003). "Substantial evidence is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 28 L. Ed. 2d 842 (1971)). The substantial evidence test applies not only to the Commissioner's findings of fact, but also to any inferences and conclusions of law drawn from such facts. See id.

To determine if substantial evidence exists to support the Commissioner's findings, this Court must "examine the entire record, including contradictory evidence and evidence from which conflicting inferences may be drawn." See Brown v. Apfel, 174 F.3d 59, 62 (2d Cir. 1999) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any ...


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