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Daniel Schuster v. Michael J. Astrue

July 10, 2012


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


Currently pending before the Court are Plaintiff Daniel Schuster's Objections to the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey. For the following reasons, the Objections are overruled.


Plaintiff protectively filed for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301, et seq., on August 18, 2008. (R. 161--63.)*fn1 His claim alleged disability since October 1, 2002, due to bipolar disorder, a pinched sciatic nerve on the left side, and alcoholism in remission. (Id. at 180.) The state agency denied Plaintiff's application on November 13, 2008, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 83--87, 88--90.) Following a hearing held on March 12, 2010, Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Janice Volkman denied Plaintiff benefits in a decision dated April 30, 2010. (Id. at 13--20.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on January 26, 2011, (id. at 1--3), making the ALJ's ruling the final decision of the agency. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1472.

Plaintiff initiated the present civil action in this Court on March 28, 2011. His Request for Review set forth four alleged errors: (1) the ALJ failed to properly consider the evidence offered by Dr. Bryer, the Commissioner's psychiatric consultant; (2) the ALJ failed to include the limitations imposed by Plaintiff's mental health impairments in questioning the vocational expert; (3) the ALJ failed to consider his back impairment in assessing his residual functional capacity; and (4) the ALJ failed to make an adequate credibility determination. On May 22, 2012, United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Hey issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") deeming these contentions meritless and recommending that the ALJ's decision be affirmed.

Plaintiff filed Objections to the R&R, on June 6, 2012, asserting the following: (1) the ALJ's evaluation of the opinion provided by Dr. Bryer was not based on substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider Plaintiff's back impairment; and (3) the ALJ failed to consider Plaintiff's credibility. Defendant filed a Response to these Objections on June 15, 2012, making them ripe for this Court's consideration.


When a party makes a timely and specific objection to a portion of a report and recommendation by a United States Magistrate Judge, the district court is obliged to engage in de novo review of the issues raised on objection. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989). In so doing, the court may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings and recommendations" contained in the report. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). The court may also, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, rely on the Magistrate Judge's proposed findings and recommendations. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980).

The Court's review of an ALJ's findings of fact, however, is limited to determining whether or not substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). Stated differently, "[t]his Court is bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence on the record." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). "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 (1988)).


A. Whether the ALJ's Evaluation of the Opinion Provided by Dr. Bryer Was Not Based on Substantial Evidence Plaintiff's first objection stems from his original claim before the Magistrate Judge that the ALJ failed to consider the evidence offered by Dr. Bryer, the Commissioner's own psychiatric consultant. Dr. Bryer had examined Plaintiff, in connection with a prior application for benefits, on March 24, 2006, more than two years prior to his current application for SSI. He concluded that Plaintiff suffered from bipolar disorder, possibly cycling variety, and assessed Plaintiff with a Global Assessment of Function ("GAF") score of 50. (R. 360.) As a result, he determined that Plaintiff suffered from marked limitations in the areas of interacting with co-workers and responding appropriately to work pressures and changes in a routine work setting. (Id. at 363.) The ALJ, however, rejected these findings of marked limitations, as follows:

In a psychological report dated March 24, 2006, Jeffrey Bryer, Ed.D., met with the claimant for a consultative examination . . . . The claimant admitted to AA but alleged sobriety for 5 months. On the mental status examination (MSE) he accurately completed serial 7s; he was oriented in 4 spheres; had good activities of daily living (shops, cooks, cleans, pay bills, and manages personal hygiene). Dr. Bryer diagnosed bipolar disorder and AA in remission.

In a medical source statement (MSS), Dr. Bryer assessed the claimant with "marked" limitations in his ability to: interact appropriately with co-workers; respond appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting; and respond appropriately to changes in a routine work setting. He has "moderate" limitations in his ability to: understand, remember and carry out short, simple instructions; and interact appropriately with the public and supervisors. I find that the medical record and the claimant's testimony do not support the "marked" limitations as found by the consultative examiner. Therefore, I do not accord great weight to this MSS. (Id. at 18.)

Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's conclusory statement rejecting Dr. Bryer's opinion is insufficient on its own to survive substantial evidence review. When Plaintiff raised this issue during federal court proceedings, defense counsel purportedly offered a post hoc rationalization for the ALJ's conclusion, which the Magistrate Judge then erroneously adopted. As Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge's R&R on this issue was based entirely on ...

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