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Butterfield v. Astrue

October 12, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Buckwalter, S. J.


Currently before the Court are Plaintiff Lydia Butterfields's Objections to the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice. For the reasons set forth below, the Objections are denied.


On July 12, 2002, fifty-five year old Plaintiff Lydia Butterfield filed for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301, et seq., alleging disability since February 6, 2002. The state agency denied her claim and, following Plaintiff's timely request for review, an administrative hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Diane C. Moskal. ALJ Moskal denied benefits in a decision dated August 11, 2003, and the Appeals Council subsequently rejected Plaintiff's request for review. Plaintiff then initiated a civil action in this Court, which reversed the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security and remanded the case, pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),*fn1 on three grounds: (1) failure to include Plaintiff's mild limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace in the residual functional capacity assessment ("RFC"); (2) failure to pose a hypothetical question to the vocational expert ("VE") that included Plaintiff's mental impairment; and (3) failure to specifically address Plaintiff's credibility.

Following a second hearing on June 22, 2005, at which time both Plaintiff and a VE testified, ALJ Moskal denied Plaintiff's claims via a decision dated July 18, 2005. Upon a second appeal to federal court, however, Defendant requested remand because portions of the recording of the second hearing were inaudible. Accordingly, this Court remanded the case, on April 10, 2005, pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).*fn2

A new ALJ, Paula F. Garrety, held a third administrative hearing on June 12, 2007. By way of decision dated September 17, 2007, ALJ Garrety denied the claims, making explicit findings under the five-step sequential analysis codified in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ determined that although Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity either from the alleged onset of her disability through 2005 or since March 2007, Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity from 2005 through March 2007 by caring for her five great-grandchildren. (R. 23.)*fn3 Second, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments in the form of a chronic lumbar strain/sprain status post injury in 2002, together with multiple non-severe impairments, as follows: depression, left elbow impairment, left knee impairment, and left foot tenosynovitis. (Id.) The ALJ noted a significant gap in treatment for physical pain from 2002 to 2005, and credited the report of consultative examiner Dr. Stanton Bree, which revealed that Plaintiff had no functional limitations. (Id.) As to Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ acknowledged the previous ALJ's findings, reviewed Plaintiff's mental health evaluations, and considered Plaintiff's testimony, prior to reaching her ultimate determination that Plaintiff had only a mild limitation on concentration, persistence, or pace. (R. 24-27.) The ALJ went on to partially credit Plaintiff's testimony about the limitations caused by her medically determinable mental impairments, but found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these impairments not entirely credible. (R. 26-27.) The ALJ offered no discussion of the testimony by Plaintiff's mother or daughter. Third, the ALJ declined to find that Plaintiff's impairments or combination thereof met or medically equaled one of the Listing of Impairments in Appendix 1, Subpart P, Part 202 of 20 C.F.R. (R. 28.) Fourth, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work that would accommodate mild deficits in concentration, persistence, or pace, secondary to a mild cognitive impairment. (R. 31.) Finally, based on the testimony of the VE, who found that Plaintiff could perform past relevant work as a housekeeper, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not been under a disability from February 6, 2002 through the date of the decision. (Id.) Accordingly, she declined the request for benefits. (Id.)

Plaintiff again sought review from this Court. On July 15, 2010, United States Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") suggesting that the case again be remanded to Defendant for further review. Specifically, Judge Rice found no merit to Plaintiff's allegation that the ALJ failed to adjudicate her claim de novo, as required. Moreover, Judge Rice found substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings that: (1) Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity as a babysitter from 2005 through March 2007; (2) Plaintiff did not have a demonstrable visual impairment of glaucoma and bilateral cataracts; (3) the medical opinions from Plaintiff's treating providers were not entitled to significant weight; (4) Plaintiff's testimony was not entirely credible; and (5) Plaintiff had an RFC to perform light work, tempered by mild deficits in concentration, persistence, and pace. Nonetheless, Judge Rice determined that the ALJ had erred by failing to address the testimony of Plaintiff's daughter, Parthenia Parker, and the undated letter from Plaintiff's mother, Charlotte Easton.

Plaintiff now raises four Objections to the R&R: (1) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity from 2005 through March 2007 is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ erred by failing to adjudicate the claim de novo; (3) the ALJ erred by failing to consider all of Plaintiff's impairments; and (4) the ALJ erred by failing to provide a legally acceptable explanation for rejecting evidence favorable to Plaintiff's claim. (Pl.'s Objections 3-16.)


When a party makes a timely and specific objection to a portion of a report and recommendation by a United States Magistrate Judge, the district court is obliged to engage in de novo review of the issues raised on objection. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989). In so doing, the court may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations" contained in the report. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court may also, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, rely on the Magistrate Judge's proposed findings and recommendations. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980).

The Court's review of an ALJ's findings of fact, however, is limited to determining whether or not substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). Stated differently, "[t]his Court is bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence on the record." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). "Substantial evidence 'does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir.1999) (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988)).


A. Whether the ALJ Erred in Either Finding that Plaintiff Engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity from 2005 Through March 2007 or Failing to Consider All of Plaintiff's Impairments (Objection Nos. 1 and 3)

Plaintiff's first and third Objections allege, respectively, that: (1) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity from 2005 through March 2007 and (2) the ALJ failed to consider all of Plaintiff's impairments. In support of each of these Objections, however, Plaintiff relies solely on her argument as presented in her previous briefing to the Magistrate ...

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