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Zucker v. Astrue

May 30, 2008


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conaboy

Magistrate Judge Mannion


In this Memorandum we consider Magistrate Judge Malachy E. Mannion's Report and Recommendation (Doc. 9) regarding Plaintiff's appeal of the denial of his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. The Magistrate Judge recommends that Plaintiff's Appeal be denied. (Doc. 9 at 17.) Because Plaintiff has filed objections to the recommended disposition, (Doc. 12), we must make a de novo determination regarding the matters to which Plaintiff has objected. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). Otherwise, we review the record for "clear error" prior to accepting the Magistrate Judge's recommendation. See Cruz v. Chater, 990 F. Supp. 375, 378 (M.D. Pa. 1998); Oldrati v. Apfel, 33 F. Supp. 2d 397, 399 (E.D. Pa. 1998).

After a thorough examination of the record, we conclude this matter must be remanded to the Commissioner for the reasons discussed below.

I. Background

Although we need not set out a detailed background here, we provide a brief summary to provide context to the following discussion.*fn1 Plaintiff filed this appeal of a denial of Social Security benefits on April 17, 2007. (Doc. 1.) Plaintiff, who was born on March 12, 1963, obtained a GED and graduated from Chubb Institute in computer programming. (Doc. 6 at 2.) He worked for twenty years in the computer field (id.), and alleges disability due to depression since August 1, 2001 (Doc. 9 at 1). He claims that "his ability to work was limited by depression and alcohol abuse/dependence" but his "substance abuse disorder (alcohol) ended November 2, 2004" (Doc. 6 at 2), and "his depression related disability" (id.) ended February 18, 2006.

In his Report and Recommendation issued on March 21, 2008 (Doc. 9), the Magistrate Judge concludes the ALJ's decision was based on substantial evidence. Therefore, as noted above, Magistrate Judge Mannion, recommends Plaintiff's appeal be denied. (Id. at 17.)

Having received an extension of time in which to file objections (Doc. 11), Plaintiff filed objections to the Report and Recommendation on May 8, 2008 (Doc. 12), accompanied by a supporting brief (Doc. 13). Plaintiff identifies six specific substantive objections to the recommended disposition:*fn2 I) the Magistrate Judge erred in stating the ALJ made a Step Six determination because the ALJ did not make such a determination (Doc. 12 at 1); II) the Magistrate Judge's summary of outpatient medical records for Good Samaritan Center omitted the treatment note for January 6, 2005, which stated that Plaintiff had difficulty in obtaining and maintaining steady employment (id.); III) the Magistrate Judge erred when he rejected Dr. Pascal's opinion; IV) the Magistrate Judge erred in rejecting Plaintiff's argument that Dr. Pascal did not consider his history of alcohol abuse because Plaintiff had not used alcohol for almost four months preceding Dr. Pascal's examination and the ALJ improperly rejected the opinion on the basis that Dr. Pascal did not consider the prior use of alcohol (id. at 2); V) the Magistrate Judge erred when he rejected Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ failed to include Dr. Pascal's and Dr. Hoffman's limitations in his question to the vocational expert (id. at 2-3); and VI) the Magistrate Judge erred when he failed to acknowledge Plaintiff's fifth assignment of error regarding the determination that alcohol was a contributing factor material to the determination of disability before November 2, 2004 (id. at 3). On May 21, 2008, Defendant filed a brief in response to Plaintiff's objections. (Doc. 14.)

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

This Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). A reviewing court is "bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427 (quoting Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)). Therefore, we will not set aside the Commissioner's final decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we would have reached different factual conclusions. Hartranft, 181 F.3d at 360 (citing Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . ."). An ALJ's decision can only be reviewed by a court based on the evidence that was before the ALJ at the time he or she made his or her decision. Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 593 (3d Cir. 2001).

B. Disability Determination

The Commissioner is required to use a five-step analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled.*fn3 It is necessary for the Commissioner to ascertain: 1) whether the applicant is engaged in a substantial activity; 2) whether the applicant is severely impaired; 3) whether the impairment matches or is equal to the requirements of one of the listed impairments, whereby he qualifies for benefits without further inquiry; 4) whether the claimant can perform his past work; 5) whether the claimant's impairment together with his age, education, and past work experiences preclude him from doing any other sort of work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)-(f); see Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 110 S.Ct. 885, 888-89 (1990).

The disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The initial burden rests with the claimant to demonstrate that he or she is unable to engage in his or her past relevant work. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, ...

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