The opinion of the court was delivered by: Padova, J.
Plaintiff Laura White filed this action, seeking judicial review of the decision of Defendant, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue ("Commissioner") , which denied her claim for Social Security Disability ("DIB") benefits. After Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment or Remand (the "Motion"), we referred the matter to Magistrate Judge M. Faith Angell, who issued a Report and Recommendation ("R & R") that Plaintiff's Motion be denied and that judgment be entered in favor of the Commissioner. Plaintiff has now filed timely objections to the R & R. For the reasons that follow, we overrule Plaintiff's objections and approve and adopt Magistrate Judge Angell's R & R.
Plaintiff is a 49-year-old woman with a twelfth grade education, who previously worked as a nurse assistant, and who recently received her certified nurse assistant license. (R. 20, 45, 57-58, 65-66, 371.) Plaintiff applied for disability benefits on October 19, 2005, alleging that she is disabled as a result of major depression, panic disorder, foot problems, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and back problems. (R. 64.)
The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claim on March 20, 2006. At Plaintiff's request, she had a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on December 11, 2006. In a decision dated March 6, 2007, the ALJ determined that only Plaintiff's discogenic and degenerative disorders of the lumbar spine constituted a severe impairment. (R. 16-17.) The ALJ further found that Plaintiff had a residual functional capacity ("RFC") for a range of light work. Considering her age, education, and work experience, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled and therefore was not entitled to benefits. (R. 20-21.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 11, 2008, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 4.)
Plaintiff argues both in the Motion and her objections that the ALJ (1) failed to discuss key medical evidence, (2) erroneously ruled that Plaintiff's depression was not a severe impairment, and (3) improperly relied on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines in finding that she was not disabled.*fn1 She requests that we sustain her objections, reject the Magistrate Judge's R & R, and grant judgment in her favor.
Under the Social Security Act, a claimant is disabled if he is unable to engage in "any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which . . . has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The burden to prove the existence of a disability rests initially upon the claimant. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A). Under the medical-vocational regulations that the Commissioner has promulgated, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to decide disability claims. At the first step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is engaging in substantial activity, the disability claim is denied. Id. At the second step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe impairment, and will deny the claim for benefits if no severe impairment is proven. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At the third step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant's impairment meets the durational requirement and is either listed or equal to a listed impairment that is presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). If the claimant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the ALJ continues to steps four and five. At the fourth step, the ALJ determines whether the claimant possesses the RFC to perform her past work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). If the claimant satisfies the burden of demonstrating an inability to return to her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth step, at which point the burden shifts to the Commissioner to demonstrate that the claimant is capable of adjusting to other available work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f); Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 205-06 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 2005)). In order to deny a claim for benefits at the fifth step, the ALJ must find that other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, consistent with the claimant's medical impairments, age, education, work experience, and RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g).
To evaluate mental impairments, the ALJ must evaluate the claimant's "pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings to determine whether [the claimant has] a medically determinable mental impairment(s)." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)(1); see also Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999). If an impairment is found, the ALJ must rate the functional limitation resulting from such impairment based upon the extent to which the impairment "interferes with [the claimant's] ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis" in four functional areas: "Activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence, or pace; and episodes of decompensation." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(2)-(3). If the claimant's mental impairment is severe, the ALJ then determines whether it "meets or is equivalent in severity to a listed mental disorder." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(2). If the claimant's impairment is severe, but does not reach the level of a listed mental disorder, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(d)(3).
Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited, and the ALJ's findings of fact will not be disturbed if they are supported by substantial evidence. Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999)). Substantial evidence is defined as "'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 (quoting Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003)). "It is more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988) (citing Stunkard v. Sec. of Health and Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988)). The ALJ's legal conclusions are subject to plenary review. Schaudeck, 181 F.3d at 431.
We conduct a de novo review of those portions of a Magistrate Judge's report and recommendation to which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). We may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the Magistrate Judge's findings or recommendations. Id.
A. Whether the ALJ Erred in Declining to Discuss Dr. Mrykalo's Findings
First, Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge committed a legal error in recommending that the ALJ did not err in failing to discuss key medical evidence. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's failure to discuss a Psychiatric Review Technique ("PRT") and Mental RFC Assessment completed by ...