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Sojourner v. Astrue

October 8, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.


Plaintiff Carmen D. Sojourner ("Plaintiff") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.

Upon consideration of the submitted pleadings and Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells' Report and Recommendation (doc. no. 14), the Court approves and adopts the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation thus denying Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment but granting Plaintiff's motion for remand.


A. Factual Background

Plaintiff was born on September 22, 1963. She was forty-three at the time she filed her application for SSI, and she was forty-four at the time of the administrative hearing. Plaintiff completed school through the eleventh grade and has no past relevant work experience. (See Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. &/or Remand 1; see also R&R 3.)

Plaintiff claims that her disability onset date is March 28, 2007. (R&R 2.) Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to the following conditions: (1) depression, (2) anxiety, (3) agoraphobia, and (4) post traumatic stress disorder. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff has received mental health treatment at the Warren E. Smith Center ("WES") since November 2006. (Id. at 3.) Plaintiff presently takes Zyprexa and Celexa. (Id.) Additionally, Plaintiff has previously taken Cymbalta and Klonopin. (Id.)

B. Procedural History

On March 28, 2007, Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits.

The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's initial claim for benefits whereupon Plaintiff requested, and was granted, an administrative hearing. (Id.) On July 2, 2008, Administrative Law Judge Irving Pianin ("ALJ") held a hearing, at which Plaintiff was found not disabled and not entitled to receive benefits. (Id.)

On September 25, 2009, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision finalizing the Commissioner's determination to deny benefits. (Id. 2-3.) Plaintiff subsequently filed this complaint on November 20, 2009 seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision. Following Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment or, in the alternative, a motion for remand, this case was referred to Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells for a Report and Recommendation on the matter. Therein, Plaintiff requested the Court enter summary judgment in her favor, ruling that she is eligible to receive benefits. Alternatively, Plaintiff asked that the Court remand her case to the Commissioner for a decision taking into account any rulings issued by this Court. In opposition, the Commissioner opposed an award of benefits and requested an affirmation of the ALJ's decision.

On August 26, 2010, Magistrate Judge Wells issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that the matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further review, thereby granting Plaintiff's motion for remand and denying her motion for summary judgment. Magistrate Judge Wells found that, by failing to consider all of Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF")*fn1 scores and the findings of Dr. O'Connell Miles M.D., the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff is not disabled lacks substantial evidence. (Id. at 12.)


The Court undertakes a de novo review of the portions of the Report and Recommendation to which the Commissioner has objected. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Cont'l Cas. Co. v. Dominick D'Andrea, Inc., 150 F.3d 245, 250 (3d Cir. 1998). The Court "may accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

In reviewing the Commissioner's final determination that a person is not disabled*fn2 and, therefore, not entitled to Social Security benefits, the Court may not independently weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusions for those reached by the ALJ. See Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Instead, the Court must review the factual findings presented in order to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005).

Substantial evidence constitutes that which a "reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 (internal marks omitted). "It is 'more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.'" Id. (quoting Ginsburg v. Richardson, 436 F.2d 1146, 1148 (3d Cir. 1971)). If the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Court may not set it aside even if the Court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. See Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999); see also Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552 ("In the process of reviewing the record for substantial evidence, we may not 'weigh the evidence or substitute [our own] conclusions for those of the fact-finder.'" (quoting Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992))).

Because Magistrate Judge Wells properly outlined the standards for establishing a disability under the Social Security Act and summarized the five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims, the Court will not duplicate these efforts here. See Santiago v. Barnhart, 367 F. Supp. 2d 728, 732 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (Robreno, J.) (outlining the standards and five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims).


Plaintiff has three main contentions regarding the ALJ's determination. She argues that the following three decisions constitute reversible errors of law: (1) the ALJ erroneously attributed to the Plaintiff a GAF of 54 instead of 50; (2) the ALJ failed to discuss or evaluate all of Plaintiff's GAF scores of 50; and (3) the ALJ failed to accord any weight to the opinion of Dr. Miles, Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist. (See ...

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