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Angela J. Brown v. Michael J. Astrue

May 1, 2012

ANGELA J. BROWN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Angela Brown filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 504(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. Brown seeks reversal of the Commissioner's decision on the grounds that the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") did not apply the proper legal standards and the ALJ's finding that Ms. Brown is not disabled was not based on substantial evidence.

Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") recommending that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further review for failure to make factual findings regarding Plaintiff's ability to find work due to her age, which was close to the advanced age category. The Commissioner has filed objections to the R&R, arguing that the Commissioner's regulations and SSA policy do not require an ALJ to discuss borderline age situations in the absence of evidence justifying the use of a higher age category. 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. The Commissioner's objections to the R&R will be overruled, and the case will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

I. P ROCEDURAL B ACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on November 2, 2006, claiming that she had been disabled since March 1, 2003. *fn1 On December 6, 2007, SSA denied Plaintiff's application. *fn2 On October 10, 2008, the ALJ held a hearing and considered testimony from Plaintiff and Gary Young, a vocational expert. *fn3 Plaintiff's application was denied on October 21, 2008, four months and one week (130 days) before her 55th birthday. *fn4

After exhausting her administrative appeals, Plaintiff filed suit in this Court, contending that 1) the ALJ failed to apply the regulations and procedures pertaining to borderline age situations, and 2) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff does not have a severe mental impairment was not supported by substantial evidence. The Magistrate Judge agreed with the first of these points and recommended remand to the Commissioner for further evaluation of Plaintiff's application.

II. L EGAL S TANDARD

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 At this stage, the Commissioner takes into account not just residual functional capacity, but also age, education, and language ability, and past vocational training. 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

III. D ISCUSSION

The ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date of her application. *fn22 The ALJ found that Plaintiff has a number of non-severe impairments, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, hypertension, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. *fn23 The ALJ also found that Plaintiff has osteoarthritis and cervical cancer, which are severe impairments but which do not meet or medically equal one of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Appendix 1. *fn24 In determining that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a full range of light work, the ALJ stated that the evidence did not substantiate Plaintiff's complaints of severe arthritic pain throughout her body, and restricting her to light work ...

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