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Sheila A. Callahan v. Michael J. Astrue

November 7, 2011

SHEILA A. CALLAHAN,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM

I. INTRODUCTION

In this action, plaintiff Sheila A. Callahan seeks review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("the Commissioner") denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The Court referred the case to United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey. Magistrate Judge Hey issued a Report and Recommendation ("R & R") on September 26, 2011, recommending that plaintiff's Request for Review be granted and the case be remanded to defendant for further proceedings pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

Presently before the Court are defendant's Objections to the R & R. The Court approves and adopts the R & R as modified in this Memorandum and grants plaintiff's Request for Review. The Court writes only to explain its decision to overrule defendant's Objections and to comment on the part of the R & R pertaining to the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") duty to develop the record.

II. BACKGROUND

The background of this case is set forth in detail in the R & R and will be recited in this Memorandum only as necessary to address the issues presented by defendant's Objections.

Plaintiff applied for DIB on August 2, 2007. Her alleged disability results from degenerative joint disease, arthritis, hepatitis C, and mental impairments. (Administrative Record ("Admin. Rec.") 12, 101.) The disputes before the Court primarily concern plaintiff's mental impairments, including her history of alcohol and drug dependency, bipolar disorder, and severe depression.

In September 2007, psychiatrist Usha Kasturirangan began to treat plaintiff. (Id. at 202.) In their sessions together, Dr. Kasturirangan noted that plaintiff was "cooperative," "stable," compliant with her medication, and coping well with family and financial stress. (Def.'s Objections Report & Recommendation U.S. Magistrate Judge ("Def.'s Objs.") 3-4; Admin. Rec. 202.) At some sessions, however, Dr. Kasturirangan also reported that plaintiff was in a depressed and anxious mood, complained of trouble sleeping and depression, and yearned for manic symptoms so that she could be more productive. (Admin Rec. 253-54.)

Dr. Kasturirangan was pessimistic about plaintiff's capacity to work regularly. In a letter to the Division of Social Security Disability dated March 31, 2008, she opined that plaintiff would be unable to work for at least one year. (Admin. Rec. 202.) On a psychiatric/psychological impairment questionnaire dated July 17, 2008, Dr. Kasturirangan wrote that plaintiff "experience[d] episodes of deterioration and decompensation in . . . work[-]like settings" and would likely be absent from work eight or nine times per month due to mental health issues. (Id. at 269-71.) She rated plaintiff as "markedly limited" in nine work-related skills and "moderately limited" in two more. (Id. at 266-69.)

After plaintiff's application for DIB was denied on November 19, 2007, she requested an administrative hearing. The hearing took place on August 1, 2008, and the ALJ issued his decision on August 13, 2008. The ALJ rejected Dr. Kasturirangan's opinion entirely, relying instead on a government-employed psychiatrist's more positive evaluation, which was based on plaintiff's written statements and medical records. (Id. at 23-24, 179-94.) Although he noted that if Dr. Kasturirangan's opinion were taken as true, "there would be no jobs that [plaintiff] could perform," the ALJ determined that plaintiff was "not disabled" within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Id. at 23-24.)

III. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Under the Social Security Act, a claimant is disabled if she is unable to engage in "any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to . . . last for a continuous period of not less than twelve (12) months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505. The Commissioner uses a five-step analysis to evaluate disability claims. This requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) can perform past relevant work; and (5) if not, can perform other work in view of her age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1180 (3d Cir. 1992).

The claimant bears the initial burden of proving the existence of a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5). To satisfy this burden, a claimant must establish an inability to return to her former work. Once the claimant makes this showing, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant, given her age, education, and work experience, has the ability to perform specific jobs that exist in the economy. Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979).

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited. This Court reviews the Commissioner's final decision to determine whether it applies the correct legal standards and is supported by substantial evidence. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999); Przegon v. Barnhart, No. 04-5313, 2006 WL 562966, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 6, 2006). "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, 565 (1988)). "To determine whether a finding is ...


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