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Evelyn M. Williams v. Michael J. Astrue

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA


November 8, 2011

EVELYN M. WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.

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

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Evelyn Williams 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 supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Ms. Williams seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision on the grounds that the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") finding that Ms. Williams is not disabled was not supported by substantial evidence. Magistrate Judge Arnold C. Rapoport 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 Magistrate Judge applied the incorrect legal standard and that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

Upon this Court's careful, independent consideration of the administrative record, the parties' submissions, and the applicable law, the Court has determined that although the R&R's summary of the relevant law was truncated, the Magistrate Judge correctly concluded that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence. Therefore, the case will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

I. F ACTUAL AND P ROCEDURAL B ACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on November 2, 2006. The ALJ found that Plaintiff "has the following severe impairments: Bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, degenerative disc disease/degenerative joint disease of the spine, degenerative joint disease of the knee and cervical radiculopathy." *fn1 The ALJ found that, although Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work, Plaintiff was not disabled because she could perform unskilled sedentary work. *fn2 In making this determination, the ALJ rejected Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain as not fully credible and the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Avart, as inconsistent with the objective medical evidence. *fn3 After exhausting her administrative appeals, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court, contending that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence.

II. L EGAL S TANDARDS

Disability determinations before an ALJ "involve shifting burdens of proof." *fn4 The claimant initially satisfies the burden of showing she is disabled by demonstrating that she cannot return to her customary occupation. *fn5 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. *fn6

This burden-shifting process follows a five-step sequential evaluation process promulgated by the SSA. *fn7 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. *fn8 In step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. *fn9

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"). *fn10 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. *fn11 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. *fn12 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. *fn13 The court's review of legal issues is plenary, but its factual review is limited. *fn14 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. *fn15 "Substantial evidence" means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." *fn16 The amount required is more than a mere scintilla, but less than a preponderance of the evidence. *fn17 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." *fn18

A district court must review de novo those portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which a party has objected. *fn19 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." *fn20

III. D ISCUSSION

In this case, the Magistrate Judge concluded that the ALJ failed to give appropriate weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician. The Commissioner argues that the Magistrate Judge applied an incorrect legal standard, and objects specifically to the statement in the R&R that, "[i]n addition, 'a treating physician's report not only may be given more weight, it must be given controlling weight.' 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527." *fn21 The Commissioner is correct that the regulation specifies that a treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight only when it "is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence" of record. *fn22 However, although the standard for evaluating a treating physician's opinion may not have been stated fully, the Magistrate Judge explained that objective evidence did support the treating physician's opinion, *fn23 and that the ALJ failed to offer any explanation to support her decision to accord no significant weight to the treating physician's assessments. *fn24 The Magistrate Judge also noted that the assessment of Plaintiff's abilities and limitations by the Commissioner's examining physician, Dr. Ross, was similar to Dr. Avart's. *fn25 The Magistrate Judge thus correctly concluded that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence.

IV. C ONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, this Court overrules the Commissioner's objections to the R&R, grants Plaintiff's request for review, and remands for further consideration pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). An appropriate order follows.


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