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Ana Marie Del Valle v. Michael Astrue

September 23, 2011


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



A. Factual Background Plaintiff was born on November 8, 1972. She was thirty-four at the time she filed her application for SSI, and she was thirty-five at the time of the final administrative decision. Plaintiff completed school through high school and has past relevant work experience as a parts packer, a crystal cutter, and a nurse's assistant. See R. 25; see also R&R 1.

Plaintiff alleges that her disability onset date is March 9, 2006. R. 12, 14. Plaintiff alleges that she is disabled due to the following conditions: degenerative disc disease, bilateral osteoarthritis of the knees, obesity, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, bipolar affective disorder, and an antisocial personality disorder. Id. at 2.

B. Procedural History

On December 29, 2006, 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. R. 27-65, 66-71. On March 26, 2008, Administrative Law Judge Margaret A. Lenzi ("ALJ") held a hearing, after which Plaintiff was found not disabled and not entitled to receive benefits because she was capable of performing a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy. Id. at 12-26.

The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, on April 4, 2010, finalizing the Commissioner's determination to deny benefits. Id. 1-4. Plaintiff subsequently filed this complaint on May 19, 2010 seeking review of the ALJ's decision. Following Plaintiff's motion for a request for a review, this case was referred to Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski for a Report and Recommendation on the matter. R&R 2. Therein, Plaintiff requested that the Commissioner's decision denying her SSI benefits be vacated, and to remand her case to the Commissioner for further development and a decision taking into account any rulings issued by the Court. In opposition, the Commissioner requested an affirmation of the ALJ decision, denying Plaintiff's SSI request.

On August 31, 2011, Magistrate Judge Sitarski issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that Plaintiff's request for review be denied, and judgment be entered in favor of Defendant. Magistrate Judge Sitarski found that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence of record, including the ALJ's Listing analysis, the Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") determination, and the corresponding hypothetical to the vocational expert ("VE").


Magistrate Judge Sitarski recommended that Plaintiff's motion for request for review be denied, and that judgment be entered in this matter in favor of the Defendant. See R&R 33.

A. Legal Standard

The Court undertakes a de novo review of the portions of the Report and Recommendation to which Defendant 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*fn1 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. 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 and decided according to correct legal standards. 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) (citations omitted); 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 Sitarski outlined the standards for establishing a disability under the Social Security Act and summarized the five-step sequential process for evaluating disability claims, these efforts will not be duplicated here. See R&R 2 n.1; see also 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).

B. Magistrate Judge Sitarski's Analysis*fn2 Plaintiff has four main contentions regarding the ALJ's determination. She argues that the following four decisions constitute errors of law requiring remand: (1) the ALJ erred at step three by failing to consider all of Plaintiff's impairments in combination for a proper Listings of Impairments evaluation;

(2) the ALJ's RFC finding at step four is not supported by substantial evidence of record, because the ALJ improperly (a) rejected certain GAF ...

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