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GORECKI v. MASSANARI

August 31, 2001

MICHAEL A. GORECKI, PLAINTIFF,
V.
LARRY G. MASSANARI, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY,[FN1] DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff brought this action on June 3, 1999 claiming the Social Security Administration's denial of supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, was not supported by substantial evidence. (Compl., Doc. 1.) Plaintiff filed his motion for summary judgment on December 15, 1999. (Doc. 11.) Defendant filed its motion for summary judgment and a brief in support on February 14, 2000. (Doc. 14.) Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt filed his Report and Recommendation on August 15, 2000 recommending that Plaintiffs motion be denied and Defendant's motion be granted. ("R. & R." or "Report", Doc. 16.) Plaintiff timely filed objections to the Report, (Pl.'s Objections to the R. & R., Doc. 17) to which Defendant responded on September 11, 2000. (Def.'s Response to Pl.'s Objections to the R. & R. by the Magistrate Judge, Doc. 18.) Because I find that the determination of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) was inconsistent with settled law, the report and recommendation of Magistrate Judge Blewitt will be adopted in part and not adopted in part.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on October 5, 1995 claiming that he was unable to work since January 23, 1994 due to his disability from arthritis or tendonitis of the left shoulder, degenerative joint disease of the left knee, borderline intellectual functioning, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, and thoracic spondylosis. His application was denied initially as well as on reconsideration. (R. 102-04.) A hearing was requested and held on May 29, 1997 before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Theodore Burock. The ALJ denied Plaintiffs benefits on January 23, 1998, having found the following, (R. 11-22):

1. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time relevant to [the ALJ's] decision.
2. The medical evidence establishes that the claimant has severe impairments consisting of borderline intellectual functioning, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, and thoracic spondylosis, but that he does not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4.
3. The claimant is not fully credible regarding his subjective complaints and their effect on his ability to engage in substantial gainful activity.
4. The claimant has a residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) which allows for a sit/stand option and which is limited to routine, repetitive tasks.
5. The claimant is precluded from the performance of his past relevant work as a custodian.
6. The claimant at all times relevant to [the ALJ's] decision is a "younger individual".
7. The claimant has a marginal education.
8. In view of the claimant's age, transferability of work skills is not an issue material to [the ALJ's] decision.
9. In evaluating the claimant under the framework of the Vocational Regulations and Section 416.969 and Rule 202.17 of Table No. 2, Appendix 2, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4 and the provisions of SSR 83-14, a finding of not disabled is appropriate.
10. The claimant is not disabled at any time through the date of [the ALJ's] decision (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f)).

(R. 20-21.)

Thereafter, Plaintiff timely requested review of the decision of the Administrative Law Judge by the Appeals Council. (R. 8-10.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request. (R. 5-6.) The decision of the Administrative Law Judge became the final decision, see Rankin v. Heckler, 761 F.2d 936, 941 (3d Cir. 1985), which is the subject of this appeal presently before the Court.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A magistrate judge's finding or ruling on a motion or issue should become that of the court unless a specific objection is filed within the prescribed time. See Thomas v. Am, 474 U.S. 140, 150-53, 106 S.Ct. 466, 472-74, 88 L.Ed.2d 435 (1985). However, where, as here, objections to the magistrate judge's report are filed, the district court must conduct a de novo review of the contested portions of the report, see Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n. 3 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C)), provided the objections are both timely and specific, see Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 6-7 (3d Cir. 1984). In making its de novo review, the district court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the factual findings or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Owens v. Beard, 829 F. Supp. 736, 738 (M.D.Pa. 1993) (McClure, J.). Although the review is de novo, the statute permits the court to rely on the recommendations of the magistrate judge to the extent it deems proper. United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676, 100 S.Ct. 2406, 2413, 65 L.Ed.2d 424 (1980); Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984); Ball v. U.S. Parole Comm'n, 849 F. Supp. 328, 330 (M.D.Pa. 1994) (Kosik, J.).

As the court's review of the magistrate judge's report is de novo, the court will review the ALJ's findings and conclusions under the substantial evidence standard. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). Substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla but less than a preponderance, and has been defined as such evidence as a reasonable person would accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Id.; Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986). "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasoning mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981) (citing Lewis v. Califano, 616 F.2d 73, 76 (3d Cir. 1980); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Substantial evidence has also been described as enough evidence to withstand a directed verdict motion where the disputed proposition is one of fact for the jury. See NLRB v. Columbian Enameling & Stamping Co., 306 U.S. 292, 300, 59 S.Ct. 501, 505, 83 L.Ed. 660 (1939); Olsen v. Schweiker, 703 F.2d 751, 753 (3d Cir. 1983).

Further, as the Third Circuit has explained:

Our decisions make clear that determination vel non of substantial evidence is not merely a quantitative exercise. A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [agency] ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence — particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians).

Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983) (citations omitted). So far as the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence, those findings are binding on this court. Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 38.

DISCUSSION

Title II of the Social Security Act provides for the payment of insurance benefits to persons who have contributed to the program and who suffer from a physical or mental disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a)(1)(D); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140, 107 S.Ct. 2287, 2290, 96 L.Ed.2d 119 (1987). An applicant for benefits is disabled under the Act if there is a "`medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any "substantial gainful activity" for a statutory twelve-month period.'" Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Stunkard v. Sec. Health & Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988)). The Social Security Administration utilizes a five-step process to determine whether or not a claimant is disabled:

(1) if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful employment, she will be found not disabled; (2) if the claimant does not suffer from a "severe impairment," she will be found not disabled; (3) if a severe impairment meets or equals a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 and has lasted or is expected to last continually for at least twelve months, then the claimant will be found disabled; (4) if the severe impairment does not meet prong (3), the Commissioner considers the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to determine whether she can perform work she has done in the past despite the severe impairment — if she can, she will be found not disabled; and (5) if the claimant cannot perform her past work, the ...

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