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Marie R. Lucero v. Michael J. Astrue

September 26, 2011


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


Plaintiff Marie Lucero filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("SSA") denying her claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Ms. Lucero seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision on the grounds that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") finding that Ms. Lucero is not disabled was not based on substantial evidence. Magistrate Judge Lynne Sitarski issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") recommending that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further review. The Commissioner has filed objections to the R&R, arguing that the ALJ's determination was supported by substantial evidence and should be upheld.

Upon this Court's careful, independent consideration of the administrative record, the parties' submissions, and the applicable law, the Court has determined that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, but has reached that conclusion for different reasons than those set forth in the R&R. Therefore, although the Commissioner's objections to the R&R will be sustained, the case nonetheless will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.


Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI August 28, 2007, claiming that she had been disabled since July 15, 2006, because of lumbar degenerative disc disease, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. *fn1 The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments of a mood disorder and a back disorder, that she retained the residual functional capacity to lift and carry up to twenty pounds, and to stand, walk, or sit for eight hours in a workday (but required "performing postural work occasionally"); and that she could perform only simple and repetitive tasks with occasional changes in the work setting and occasional contact with the public and co-workers. *fn2 The ALJ also found that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in the ability to maintain concentration, persistence, and pace and had experienced episodes of decompensation. *fn3 Although the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as a hospital cleaner, the ALJ concluded that because Plaintiff could perform other work she is not disabled. *fn4

After exhausting her administrative appeals, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court, contending that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ (1) improperly rejected the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician and failed to consider Plaintiff's mental-assessment scores; (2) failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's subjective complaints with regard to her mental impairments; and (3) provided an insufficient hypothetical question to the vocational expert. The Magistrate Judge agreed with the first of these points and recommended remand to the Commissioner for further evaluation of Plaintiff's application.


Disability determinations before an ALJ "involve shifting burdens of proof." *fn5 The claimant initially satisfies the burden of showing she is disabled by demonstrating that she cannot return to her customary occupation. *fn6 Once the claimant's initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the Commissioner, who must show that the claimant can still engage in substantial gainful activity. *fn7
This burden-shifting process follows a five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the SSA. *fn8 At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the applicant is currently engaging in "substantial gainful activity"; if the ALJ so finds, the claim is denied. *fn9 In step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. *fn10

If the claimant suffers from a severe impairment, the ALJ at step three compares the claimant's impairment to a list of impairments presumed to preclude any gainful work, which are listed in Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the applicable regulations ("listed impairments"). *fn11 If the applicant does not suffer from a listed impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to steps four and five. At step four, the ALJ must determine whether the applicant has the residual functional capacity to perform past relevant work. *fn12 If the applicant proves she cannot resume her former occupation, the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five, where the Commissioner must demonstrate that the applicant is capable of performing other work available in the national economy. *fn13 If the Commissioner cannot demonstrate that the applicant is capable of other available work, the ALJ must find that the applicant is disabled.

A court reviewing a Social Security case must base its decision on the record of the administrative proceedings and the pleadings of the parties. *fn14 The court's review of legal issues is plenary, but its factual review is limited. *fn15 The court must determine whether the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's factual findings, and whether the Commissioner applied the proper legal standards in making its decision. *fn16 "Substantial evidence" means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." *fn17 The amount required is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance of the evidence. *fn18 If the ALJ's factual findings were determined according to the correct legal standards and are supported by substantial evidence, the court is bound by them, "even if [it] would have decided the factual inquiry differently." *fn19

A district court must review de novo those portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which a party has objected. *fn20 The district court may in its discretion "accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge." *fn21


The Magistrate Judge concluded that the ALJ did not adequately consider all of the Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") scores that Plaintiff received from different treating sources. Plaintiff first sought treatment for mental impairments on July 15, 2007, when she went to Crozer Keystone Health System, reporting that she had suicidal ideation because of marital and employment problems. *fn22 Plaintiff was admitted for psychiatric treatment and stabilization, and upon her admission had a GAF score of 30, indicating major impairment. Two days later, Plaintiff requested discharge, denying that ...

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