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Joseph Miller v. Michael J. Astrue

September 14, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anita B. Brody, J.



Plaintiff Joseph Miller brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 405(g) to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The case was referred to a Magistrate Judge for a Report and Recommendation ("R & R"). That has been completed. The Magistrate Judge recommends that I deny Miller's request for review of the Commissioner's final decision to deny benefits. Miller submits two objections to the R & R and requests a de novo determination. For the reasons set forth below, I will remand this case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


On January 6, 2005, Miller filed an application for SSI alleging that he became disabled on November 30, 2004. Miller was forty-three years old at the time of the alleged onset of his disability. R. 54. In his application, Miller alleged that his disability resulted from psoriatic arthropathy; left ankle fusion; back, neck, and joint pain; hepatitis; and a history of drug and alcohol abuse. R. 21, 53-66, 73-74, 88-99. At the time of his alleged disability, Miller had a General Education diploma ("GED"), and a past relevant work history as a roofer, truck driver, and an assembly line worker. R. 28, 77-78, 80, 135.

On May 24, 2005, Miller's application was denied at the initial level. R. 34. Miller then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On November 15, 2007, an ALJ held a hearing on Miller's claim for SSI. R. 480-95. On January 8, 2008, the ALJ found that Miller had the residual functional capacity to perform light work with no detailed instructions. R. 24. The ALJ further concluded that Miller was capable of performing his past relevant work as an assembly line worker. R. 28. As a result of these findings, the ALJ denied Miller's application for SSI.

Following the ALJ's ruling, Miller requested review by the Appeals Council. R. 6-10. The Appeals Council denied Miller's request for review on March 25, 2009, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. R. 3-6. On May 29, 2009, Miller initiated this action for judicial review of the ALJ's decision.


A district court "must uphold a final agency determination unless [it] find[s] that it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record." Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). "Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir.1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). A reviewing court must not "weigh the evidence or substitute [its own] conclusions for those of the fact-finder." Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552(internal quotation marks omitted).

A district court conducts a de novo review of objections to the magistrate's R & R. Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3).


A. Determination of Disability

"In order to establish a disability under the Social Security Act, a claimant must demonstrate there is some medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any 'substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period." Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427 (internal quotation marks omitted). A claimant is considered unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is 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.A. § 423(d)(2)(A). To make this disability determination, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential evaluation process. See C.F.R. § 404.1520. In Plummer, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit explained this five step analysis as follows:

In step one, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). If a claimant is found to be engaged in substantial activity, the disability claim will be denied. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137 (1987). In step two, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1520(c). ...

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