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Ramona Bethea v. Michael J. Astrue

December 5, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: O'neill, J.


Alleging disability from October 10, 2004, plaintiff Ramona Bethea filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403 on May 1, 2006. Her claim for benefits was denied at the initial review level on October 10, 2006. Upon her request for a hearing before an administrative law judge, a hearing was held on March 5, 2008. Plaintiff appeared and testified at a supplemental hearing held on June 11, 2008. An impartial vocational expert also appeared and testified at the supplemental hearing.

On July 9, 2010 Malvin B. Eisenberg, the ALJ, issued a decision finding that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work. The ALJ found that plaintiff was capable of performing her past relevant work as a hand packager and concluded that from December 10, 2005*fn1 through the date of the decision plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act.*fn2 Under the ALJ's decision, plaintiff was not entitled to receive disability insurance benefits.

In his decision, the ALJ summarized his review of the records of plaintiff's treatment by Dr. Randall Smith from October 12, 2003 to October 12, 2007. (Tr. at 20.) Dr. Smith treated plaintiff for degenerative disc disease and disc herniation. Id. While under Dr. Smith's care, plaintiff received epidural steroid injections on March 7, 2006, March 14, 2006 and March 21, 2006. Id. The ALJ noted that Dr. Smith's May 21, 2007 medical source statement concluded that plaintiff "could frequently lift/carry less than 10 pounds and occasionally a maximum of 10 pounds; sit 3 hours total in an 8-hour workday; stand/walk 2 hours total in an 8-hour workday; and would be absent from work more than 3 times monthly due to her symptoms." (Tr. at 20.)

The ALJ also summarized his review of the records of plaintiff's treatment by Dr. Joseph Guagliardo from June 29, 2007, continuing through April 25, 2008. Dr. Guagliardo diagnosed plaintiff with "lumbar disc herniation, cervical disc herniation, and lumbar sprain and strain." (Id.) The ALJ noted that Dr. Guagliardo's May 9, 2008 medical source statement concluded that plaintiff "could walk one block; never lift any weight at all; has significant limitation for repetitive reaching, handling and fingering; can sit 20 minutes at a time and stand 10 minutes at a time; does not require the use of any assistive walking devices; but offered no opinion as to how frequently her impairments might cause her to be absent from work." (Id.)

Finally, the ALJ summarized the October 2006 assessment of a non-physician State agency disability claims adjudicator who concluded that plaintiff was "able to frequently lift/carry 10 pounds and occasionally a maximum of 20 pounds; stand/walk 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday; sit 6 hours total in an 8-hour workday; occasionally able to perform all postural maneuvers; and with no manipulative, visual, communicative or environmental limitations." (Id.)

Noting the inconsistent assessments of plaintiff provided by Dr. Smith, Dr. Guagliardo and the State claims adjudicator and noting that plaintiff "has not been on any pain medication for 2 years or more and treatment has been conservative to date," the ALJ determined that he was "unable to adopt as controlling the medical source statements of either treating source." (Id. at

21.) Plaintiff had testified that "she ha[d] not been on any prescription pain medication since 2005 or 2006." (Id. at 19.) The ALJ concluded, that while "the claimant's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected, . . . the claimant's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of those symptoms are not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with the residual functional capacity assessment . . . ." (Id. at 21.)

Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision and on January 7, 2010, the Appeals Council issued an unfavorable decision. Thereafter plaintiff filed this action, seeking reversal of the ALJ's decision, arguing that the ALJ's finding that she is not disabled was not supported by substantial evidence. I referred plaintiff's case to United States Magistrate Judge Arnold C. Rapoport for a report and recommendation and on August 26, 2011, he recommended that the matter be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings. Defendant subsequently filed objections to the Report and Recommendation arguing that the Magistrate Judge applied an incorrect legal standard and that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence.

For the reasons that follow, and after independent consideration of the administrative record, I will adopt Judge Rapoport's Report and Recommendation and will remand the matter to the ALJ.


A district court judge may refer an appeal of a decision of the Commissioner to a magistrate judge. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). Within ten days after being served a copy of the magistrate judge's Report and Recommendation, a party may file timely and specific objections thereto. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). In the event that objections are filed, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) requires a district court to "make a de novo determination of those portions of the [magistrate judge's] recommendations to which objection is made." It further allows the Court to "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate." Id.; see Haines v. Liggett Group, Inc., 975 F.2d 81, 91 (3d Cir. 1992); Terwilliger v. Chater, 945 F. Supp. 836, 841 (E.D. Pa. 1996).

The issue to be addressed on appeal from a denial of benefits is whether the Commissioner's decisions are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see also Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). "Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion after reviewing the entire record, but it may be less than a preponderance." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted). "Overall, the substantial evidence standard is deferential and includes deference to inferences drawn from the facts if they, in turn, are supported by substantial evidence." Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999). "It is not the role of the Court to re-weigh the evidence of record or substitute its own conclusions for that of the ALJ." Wells v. Astrue, No. 10-1811, 2011 WL 940492, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 25, 2011), citing Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002); see also Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d at 38 (3d Cir. 2001) ("Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if we would have decided the factual inquiry differently."); Simmonds v. Heckler, 807 F.2d 54, 58 (3d Cir. 1986) (holding that even if the record could sustain an alternative conclusion, the ALJ's decision regarding disability will not be overturned as long as there is substantial evidence to support it).

"An ALJ is not required to cite to every piece of evidence in the record when rendering his decision." Thomas v. Astrue, No. 10-2175, 2011 WL 2437143, at *1 (E.D. Pa. June 16, 2011). However, the ALJ must provide "'not only an expression of the evidence s/he considered which supports the result, but also some indication of the evidence which was rejected. In the absence of such an indication, the reviewing court cannot tell if significant probative evidence was not credited or simply ignored.'" ...

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