ON APPEAL FROM THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
Before: SEITZ, Chief Judge, SLOVITER, Circuit Judge and BROTMAN, District Judge*fn*
This is an appeal by a recipient of disability benefits from summary judgment for the Secretary of Health and Human Services who terminated her benefits after determining that her disability termination case, the Secretary must show medical improvement "to the point of "nondisability" since the prior determination of the Secretary." Brief for Appellant at 33. The Secretary contends that such a standard would be inappropriate under the statute and inconsistent with our recent holding in Torres v. Schweiker, 682 F.2d 109 (3d Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 459 U.S. 1174, 103 S. Ct. 823, 74 L. Ed. 2d 1020 (1983). We reject the Secretary's contention, and accept for the most part the standard suggested by appellant.
Mrs. Joan Kuzmin, appellant, was fifty years old at the time of the administrative hearing in this case. She had applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits on March 7, 1979, alleging disability due to hypertension, heart problems, Raynaud's disease, and the effects of childhood polio. She also reported rheumatoid arthritis and hammer toes. This application was initially denied; however, a hearing was held on August 31, 1979 before an Administrative Law Judge (LAJ) in which the appellant, unrepresented by counsel, testified and submitted medical evidence in support of her disability claim. The medical evidence included a report by her treating physician, Dr. Richard Heibel, and records from St. Vincent's Health Center diagnosing Mrs. Kuzmin as having, among other things, mild chronic obstructive lung disease, Barlow's Syndrome, premature ventricular contractions, anxiety, hypertension, bursitis, and a history of polio which had impaired her motor function especially on the left and which caused extensive atrophy in her legs. Dr. Tavana reported in a letter that he saw Mrs. Kuzmin for acute arthritis of the left wrist and that an x-ray showed degenerative disease of the distal ulna. Further, a report by Dr. Fortune stated that Mrs. Kuzmin suffered from pain in the left lower back area and left leg, from hammer toes of the right foot, a protruding left rib cage, and swollen and painful joints of the right hand.
On September 13, 1979, the ALJ concluded without an opinion that Mrs. Kuzmin was disabled as of the date of her application in March 1979. His decision did not recite the evidence relied upon, but he noted that his decision was "wholly favorable" to the appellant. As a result, Mrs. Kuzmin began receiving benefits.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) subsequently reviewed Mrs. Kuzmin's case. Mrs. Kuzmin was examined by Dr. Skovron at the SSA's request on October 25, 1980. The SSA concluded that Mrs. Kuzmin could engage in some form of sedentary work. A notice of November 14, 1980 informed Mrs. Kuzmin of the SSA's intention to terminate her SSI benefits as of December 1980 because it determined her disability to have ceased in October 1980.
Mrs. Kuzmin appealed this decision. At a hearing before another ALJ on February 25, 1981, the record consisted of all the evidence before the first ALJ, testimony by the again unrepresented appellant, and newly submitted exhibits. The new exhibits included the report by Dr. Skovron based on his examination of the appellant on October 25, 1980. This report stated, inter alia, that Mrs. Kuzmin had a protruding abdomen, mild degenerative changes in the small joints of both hands, a light lumbar scoliosis, partial post-polio paralysis of the left lower extremity, atrophy of the left buttock, thigh, and calf, and hammer toes of the right foot. The record also included a report and physical capacities evaluation by Dr. O. S. Suppa, who had earlier treated Mrs. Kuzmin.
Mrs. Kuxmin submitted two letters and progress notes from Dr. Heibel described the appellants as suffering from fourteen medical impairments and concluded that Raynaud's Phenonmenon, which makes it difficult for Mrs. Kuzmin to use her hands, coupled with the effects of polio and hypertension makes it difficult for her to find a suitable form of employment. The second letter, dated February 16, 1981, stated that Mrs. Kuzmin continued to suffer from these multiple medical problems and if anything "has developed more symptoms in the last year and is not a reasonable person for employment."
The ALJ ruled on May 13, 1981 that Mrs. Kuzmin's disability had ceased as of October 1980, when her impairments improved. He specifically pointed to the results of Dr. Skovron's examination of the appellant on October 25, 1980. The ALJ did not refer to Dr. Suppa's physical capacities evaluation. With respect to the appellant's allegations of pain, the ALJ stated that "while claimant may experience occasional discomfort, the pain is not of the severity or duration so as to preclude the performance of substantial gainful employment. The claimant's allegation of constant and severe pain as a basis of liability [sic] is found to be not credible." Finally, in his only reference to Dr. Heibel's opinion that Mrs. Kuzmin was disabled, the ALJ stated that "the weight to be given such a statement depends on the extent to which it is supported by the complete clinical findings and that such statement shall not be determinative of the question of whether or not an individual is under a disability."
After obtaining counsel, Mrs. Kuzmin appealed this decision to the Appeals Council. She presented four new pieces of evidence: a letter dated June 23, 1981 from the Pennsylvania Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation stating that Mrs. Kuzmin was "too disabled to work"; a letter dated October 21, 1981 from Dr. Makarowski of the Rheumatology Clinic of St. Vincent's Health Center, covering the period from April to September 1981; a letter dated October 22, 1981 from Dr. Frankovitch, an orthopedic surgeon; and a letter dated October 23, 1981 from Dr. Heibel, all stating that Mrs. Kuzmin was disabled or unable to be gainfully employed. The Appeals Council on December 28, 1981 found Mrs. Kuzmin to be "not disabled," thereby making this the final decision of the Secretary. She sought review of this decision in the district court pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) (Supp. V 1981) ...