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Smith v. Astrue

February 4, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Jones III

Magistrate Judge Blewitt


Before the Court is the report and recommendation of Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Blewitt entered on November 13, 2007, which recommends that Plaintiff Joseph Smith's appeal of the Commissioner's denial of Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act be denied. (Doc. 10.) Smith filed objections to the report and recommendation (Doc. 11), to which the Commissioner filed a response (Doc. 12). For the reasons set forth below, the Court will adopt the report and recommendation and deny Smith's appeal.


A. Review of a Magistrate Judge's Report

In reviewing the report and recommendation of a magistrate judge, the district court makes a de novo determination with respect to those portions to which objection is made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674-75 (1980); see also Local Rule 72.3. In providing for a de novo determination rather than a de novo hearing, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) permits whatever reliance the district court, in the exercise of sound discretion, chooses to place on a magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations without the need to rehear testimony. Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 674-75; see also Mathews v. Weber, 423 U.S. 261, 275 (1976); Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 7 (3d Cir. 1984.)

B. Review of the Commissioner's Denial of Benefits

A district court's review of the denial of disability benefits, however, is more limited. The court's role is to "determine whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision." Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988)). "It is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla." Jones, 364 F.3d at 503 (quoting Jesurum v. Sec'y of the U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995)). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is a deferential standard of review." Id. (citing Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). "Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001).

C. Eligibility Evaluation Process

To receive disability benefits, a claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 432(d)(1)(A.) Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). A five-step evaluation process is used to determine if a claimant meets these eligibility requirements. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Jones, 364 F.3d at 503. If the Commissioner finds that a claimant is not disabled at any step in the process, the review does not proceed, and the claimant is not eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

At step one, the claimant must establish that he has not engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). If a claimant is working and the work is substantial gainful activity, he will found to be not disabled regardless of medical condition, age, education, or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). At step two, the claimant must establish that he has a "severe impairment." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, he is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

If the claimant does suffer from a severe impairment, at step three, the Commissioner must determine whether the evidence establishes that the claimant's impairment meets or equals those severe impairments listed in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). If so, the claimant is automatically eligible for benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d.) On the other hand, if the claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the Commissioner proceeds to step four and determines whether the claimant retains the "residual functional capacity" to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If so, the claimant is not eligible for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e)-(f.)

The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to his past relevant work. Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428. If the claimant meets this burden, the evaluation continues to step five, where the burden then shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant is able to perform, consistent with his medically determinable impairments, functional limitations, age, education, work experience, and vocational factors. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(a)(4)(v); Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428. If the Commissioner ...

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