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Hall v. Astrue

June 9, 2010


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


Plaintiff, Helena L. Hall ("Hall"), commenced this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"). In accordance with the court's July 1, 2009 procedural order, the plaintiff filed a brief and statement of issues in support of request for review [paper no. 5]. The Commissioner filed a response in opposition to the request for review [paper no. 7]. By order of December 9, 2009, the case was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice for a Report and Recommendation ("R&R"). Upon review of the record, Judge Rice denied the request for review and affirmed the decision of the Commissioner. Hall timely filed objections to the R&R. Having conducted a thorough review of Hall's Objections, the response from the Commissioner, the R&R of Magistrate Judge Rice, and the administrative evidence of record, the Court overrules Hall's objections and affirms the final decision of the Commissioner.

I. Procedural History

On May 11, 2006, Hall filed an application for SSI alleging disability under the Act since February 1, 2006. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied her claim for benefits on November 7, 2006. On January 6, 2007, Hall filed a request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ALJ Margaret A. Lenzi conducted a hearing on January 29, 2008, and denied the claim on February 12, 2008. The R&R succinctly summarized the ALJ's findings:

At step one, the ALJ found Hall did not engage in substantial gainful activity at any time since the alleged onset of her disability. R. 24. At step two, the ALJ found Hall suffered from the following severe combination of impairments: degenerative joint disease of the right foot and knee, a back strain/sprain, and migraine headaches. R. 24. At step three, the ALJ found Hall's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet, or medically equal, one of the listed impairments. R. 24-25. The ALJ determined Hall had the RFC to perform light work or sedentary level work in a low-stress job that does not require her to crawl, kneel, or use her right foot for repetitive movements and does not require any more than occasional decision-making or changes in the work setting. R. 26. In determining Hall's RFC, the ALJ considered Hall's subjective complaints, but found Hall incredible because of contradictory statements, her medical record of conservative treatment, and her demeanor at the hearing. R. 27. The ALJ offered examples of inconsistencies and exaggerations in Hall's testimony and her application, and found that although Hall alleged several limitations, her limitations were less severe. For example, the ALJ cited evidence that Hall cooks, shops, goes to church, does social activities several times a month, and cares for her grandchildren. R. 28. Thus, the ALJ concluded, Hall could perform light sedentary activities. Id. The ALJ also rejected the opinions of Hall's treating and non-treating physicians, Dr. Michael Flanagan, Dr. David Jones, and Dr. Walter Schwartz. R. 28-29; see 20 C.F.R. 416.927 (d)(2)-(3). The ALJ found Dr. Jones' March-to-August treatment notes did not support his opinion that Hall was limited to less than two hours of standing and/or walking, limited to upper and lower extremity pushing and/or pulling, to reach in all directions, and completely unable to climb, balance, kneel, crouch, or stoop. R. 28. The ALJ found medical records did not support Dr. Flanagan's opinion that Hall would be absent more than four days a month as a result of her migraine headaches. Id. The ALJ rejected Dr. Schwartz's opinion that found Hall was limited to sedentary level work and limited to one-hour or less of standing and walking. R. 29. The ALJ concluded Dr. Schwartz's opinion was not supported by the medical records because Dr. Schwartz's physical examination of Hall noted only "generalized tenderness" in the right knee, but an ability to heel walk, and no evidence of right lower extremity atropy [sic]. Id. Additionally, the ALJ found that some of Dr. Schwartz's opinion was based on Hall's subjective complaints, which he found incredible. Id.

At step four, the ALJ found Hall was unable to perform past relevant work, R. 29, but at step five, the ALJ determined there are a significant number of jobs in the national economy Hall could perform based on her age, education, work experience, and RFC. R. 29-30. ( See R&R 3-4 [paper no. 10]). Hall filed a request for review of the decision on May 5, 2008. Hall's requested review of the decision was denied by the Appeals Council on April 22, 2009. Hall filed her complaint appealing the decision denying her benefits on June 24, 2009. This court referred the request for review and the Commissioner's response to Timothy R. Rice, United States Magistrate Judge, for a Report and Recommendation.

In the pending request for review, Hall argues that: (1) the ALJ failed to evaluate properly the treating and examining physicians' opinions; (2) the ALJ failed to evaluate properly the claimant's credibility, and her finding is not supported by the evidence; (3) the ALJ's finding regarding the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is not supported by the evidence; and (4) the Appeals Council erred in denying review of the ALJ decision. ( See Pl. Request for Review 2-4 [paper no. 5]). The Magistrate Judge found that substantial evidence supported: (1) the ALJ's credibility finding as to Hall's testimony; (2) the ALJ's decision not to afford full weight to the opinions of Dr. Jones, Dr. Flanagan, and Dr. Schwartz; and (3) the ALJ's determination of Hall's RFC. ( See R&R 10-18 [paper no. 10]). Hall filed Objections to the R&R on March 18, 2010. ( See Pl. Objections [paper no. 11]).

II. Standard of Review

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 a claim of disability. 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 existing in the national economy. Bembery v. Barnhart , 142 Fed. Appx. 588, 590 (3d Cir. 2005); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.

A. 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 decision, 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).

B. Standard of Review on Objections to a Report and Recommendation

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. ยง 636(b)(1)(c); Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b). Hall's Objections to the R&R rehash the arguments previously raised to the Magistrate Judge in his request for review. A careful examination of Hall's submissions reveals that Hall's Request for Review [paper no. 5] and Hall's Objections [paper no. 11] are essentially identical briefs, with some minor formatting changes. By submitting a near verbatim recitation of her Request for Review, Hall asks that the court ignore the contributions of the Magistrate Judge and allow a second de novo review of her arguments against the ALJ's decision. Although courts within the Circuit have held that ...

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