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Rodriguez v. Astrue

March 18, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Norma L. Shapiro, S.J.


Plaintiff, Nelson Rodriguez ("Rodriguez"), commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment and request for review [paper no. 7]. Upon review of plaintiff's objections to the Report and Recommendation of the United States Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and request for review will be denied and judgment affirming the decision of the Commissioner will be entered in favor of defendant.


On November 3, 2000, Rodriguez filed DIB and SSI claims alleging disability under the Act since September 5, 2000. With regard to the DIB claim, Rodriguez's earnings record showed that he had acquired sufficient quarters of coverage to remain insured through December 31, 2005. (R. at 19). The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied his claim for benefits on January 22, 2001. On March 21, 2001, Rodriguez filed a request for a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ALJ Alan Sacks conducted a hearing on January 4, 2002, and denied both claims on January 9, 2002. Rodriguez timely filed a request for review of the hearing decision with the Appeals Council. On July 19, 2002, the Appeals Council remanded the matter to the ALJ for further review. ALJ Sacks held a second hearing on October 25, 2002, and denied the benefits the same day. Rodriguez again sought review by the Appeals Council.

While Rodrguez's request for review was pending before the Appeals Council, he filed a second application for DIB on January 27, 2003. In March 2003, the state agency found Rodriguez disabled as of January 10, 2002. Because of the internal discrepancy, the Appeals Council vacated the hearing results, opened the state determination, consolidated the claims, and sent the case back to another ALJ with specific instructions for remand. On April 10, 2006, ALJ Richard Kelly conducted a third hearing. On May 16, 2006, ALJ Kelly issued his opinion finding that Rodriguez was not disabled from September 2000 through the date of the decision. Rodriguez's requested review of the decision was denied by the Appeals Council on July 14, 2008. Rodriguez filed the instant action from the final decision of the Commissioner. This court referred the motion for summary judgment and request for review to Lynne A. Sitarski, United States Magistrate Judge, for a Report and Recommendation ("R&R").

Rodriguez argued: (1) the ALJ failed to credit properly the opinion of Rodriguez's treating physician, Dr. Apollo M. Arenas; (2) the ALJ failed to credit properly Rodriguez's testimony; (3) the ALJ failed to assess properly Rodriguez's residual functional capacity ("RFC"); and (4) the ALJ posed a flawed hypothetical to the vocational expert because the ALJ failed to have him consider Rodriguez's non-exertional impairment. (See Pl. Request for Review, at 3 [paper no. 7]). The Magistrate Judge found: (1) substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision not to give controlling weight to Dr. Arenas's opinion; (2) substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility determination as to Rodriguez's testimony; (3) substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assessment of Rodriguez's lumbar condition and carpal tunnel syndrome; and (4) substantial evidence supports the ALJ's determination that Rodriguez does not suffer from any non-exertional limitations, so the ALJ did not err in failing to include non-exertional limitations in the hypothetical to the vocational expert. (See R&R, at 9-18 [paper no. 13]). Rodriguez filed Objections claiming that the Magistrate Judge and the ALJ failed to credit properly the opinion of the treating physician, Dr. Arenas. (See Pl. Objections, at 1-4 [paper no. 14]). He argued that the opinion of Dr. Arenas was entitled to substantial weight because it was well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and was not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record.


I. Standard of Review

A. Disability Under the Social Security Act

The court conducts de novo review of the portions of an R & R to which specific objections have been filed. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); Fed.R.Civ.P.72(b). Under the Act, a claimant is disabled if unable 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. § 423(d)(1)(A). The impairment must render the claimant "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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). A five-step sequential evaluation is utilized in evaluating disability claims. The Commissioner considers whether a claimant: (1) is working; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in the regulations and is considered per se disabling; (4) can return to past work; and (5) if not, can perform other work. Bembery v. Barnhart, 142 Fed. Appx. 588, 590 (3d Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

B. Judicial Review of Commissioner's Final Decision

This court must accept the factual findings of the Commissioner if supported by substantial evidence and decided according to correct legal standards. See Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir.1986). Substantial evidence is deemed such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a decision. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Lewis v. Califano, 616 F.2d 73, 76 (3d Cir. 1980). The court should not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusions for those of the ALJ. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Despite this deference to the administrative decisions, the court retains the responsibility to scrutinize the record and remand if the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence. See Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir.1981). The court must consider the evidence supporting the decision in relation to all of the other evidence in the record. See Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981). If the court determines that the conclusion of the ALJ is supported by substantial evidence, it must affirm the decision, even if it would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999).

II. Evaluation of Evidence

Rodriguez claims the ALJ and Magistrate Judge did not give proper weight to the medical opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Arenas. The Third Circuit has acknowledged that "[u]nder applicable regulations and the law of this Court, opinions of a claimant's treating physician are entitled to substantial and at times even controlling weight." Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir.2001); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). The medical opinion of a claimant's treating physician is given controlling weight on the issue of the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record . . . ." Id. However, "a statement by a plaintiff's treating physician supporting an assertion that she is 'disabled' or 'unable to work' is not dispositive of the issue." Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 47-48 (3d Cir.1994). "The ALJ must review all the medical findings and other evidence presented in support of the attending physician's opinion of total disability," and "must weigh the relative ...

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