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Jesus Rodriguez Santiago v. Michael Astrue Commissioner of Social Security

August 6, 2012

JESUS RODRIGUEZ SANTIAGO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL ASTRUE COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM

Plaintiff Jesus Rodriguez Santiago seeks review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of Plaintiff's application for supplemental social security income. I will sustain in large part Plaintiff's Objections to the Magistrate's Report and Recommendation, and remand to the Commissioner.

I.Background

At the time of Plaintiff's application, he was 47-years old, and alleged that he was disabled because of his inability to communicate in English combined with the following impairments: right hand limitations, hepatitis C, arthritis, leg problems, bipolar disorder, mixed personality disorder, and drug addiction. See Record at 15, 73. Mr. Rodriguez Santiago had previously worked as a warehouse packager. See Record 444-45. After his claim was denied on February 20, 2008, Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. See Record at 73.

On July 23, 2009, the ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff was represented by a non-attorney representative. SeeRecord at 437-39; 20 C.F.R. § 416.1505. Plaintiff testified to his impairments and employment experience. Id. at 439-64. Vocational Expert Bruce Martin opined that given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, Plaintiff could perform representative occupations at the light exertion and sedentary levels. Id. at 466-70.

In his August 14, 2009 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from four severe impairments: bipolar disorder, alcoholism, degenerative joint disease of the right wrist, and hepatitis C. SeeRecord at 15, 17. He further found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform the following tasks without constant supervision: 1) light work that does not require him to reach overhead with his right arm, and 2) simple, repetitive work. SeeRecord at 20. Finally, relying on Mr. Martin's testimony, the ALJ found that there are light exertion jobs Plaintiff can perform that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: usher and ticket taker (45,000 jobs nationally and 1,000 jobs in the region), and inspector (280,000 jobs nationally, and 4,600 jobs in the region). He could also perform sedentary jobs: inspector (40,000 jobs nationally and 1,500 jobs in the region) and surveillance systems monitor (13,000 jobs nationally and 250 jobs in the region). See Record at 22, 466-70. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled and denied his application for SSI benefits.

After the Appeals Council affirmed, Plaintiff filed this action, challenging the Commissioner's decision. After receiving Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Request for Review and Defendant's Response, I referred the matter to the Magistrate. (Doc. Nos. 14, 18, 27.) In her Report and Recommendation, the Magistrate concluded that the ALJ's decision should be affirmed. Plaintiff timely objected, and the Commissioner has responded to those Objections. (Doc. Nos. 29, 31.)

II.Legal Standards

A. Review of Determination Below

I must review de novo each issue addressed in the Magistrate's Report and Recommendation to which Plaintiff has raised a timely and specific Objection. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); see also Sample v. Diecks, 885 F.2d 1099, 1106 n.3 (3d Cir. 1989). I may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the [Magistrate's] findings and recommendations." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). It is also within my discretion to rely on the Magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980).

I must determine whether "substantial evidence" supports the ALJ's decision. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). "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, 564--65 (1988)). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, I must uphold it even if I would have made different factual findings. Hartranft, 181 F.3d at 360. I may not undertake a de novo review of the ALJ's decision, nor may I reweigh the evidence of record. Monsour, 806 F.2d at 1190.

B. Disability Determination

To qualify for SSI benefits, a claimant must be "disabled" under the Social Security Act and applicable regulations. The claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (internal quotations omitted). A claimant is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity "only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

The ALJ follows a five-step evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Should the ALJ determine at Step One that the claimant is presently engaged in substantial gainful activity, disability benefits will be denied. Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427. At Step Two, if the claimant fails to show that he suffers from "severe impairments," he is ineligible for disability benefits. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). At Step Three, the ALJ compares the claimant's credibly established impairments to a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

If a claimant does not suffer from a "listed" impairment or its equivalent, the analysis proceeds to Steps Four, which requires the ALJ to consider whether the claimant retains the "residual functional capacity" to perform previous work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d). RFC is a measure of the activities a claimant can perform despite his impairments. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 40 (3d Cir. 2001).

If the claimant is unable to resume a former occupation, the evaluation moves to Step Five: the ALJ must determine whether there are a significant number of other jobs in the national economy that the claimant can perform, consistent with his impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). At Step Five, the ALJ "will generally consult the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, a publication of the United States Department of Labor that contains descriptions of the requirements for thousands of jobs that exist in the national economy, in order to determine whether any jobs exist that a claimant can perform." See Boone v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 203, 206 (3d Cir. 2004). "The Social Security Administration has taken administrative notice of the reliability of the job information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles." Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 126 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.996(d)). In performing the Step Five analysis, the ALJ typically will rely upon the testimony of a vocational expert. See Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 1984). The ALJ must analyze the cumulative effect of all the claimant's impairments in determining whether or not he is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523.

III.Discussion

Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate's conclusions that the ALJ properly: 1) rejected the opinion of the SSA's consulting psychologist regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments; and 2) relied on Mr. Martin's testimony in concluding that Plaintiff is able to perform various light exertion jobs. In addition, Plaintiff objects to the Magistrate's failure to consider his contention that even if he could perform the sedentary jobs identified by Mr. Martin, Plaintiff is nonetheless disabled under the applicable "medical vocational guidelines."

A. Psychological Evaluation

At the SSA's request, psychologist Daniel Schwarz, Ph.D evaluated Plaintiff and opined as follows:

The prognosis is fair as long as the claimant continues to pursue ongoing outpatient psychiatric and psychological therapies.

In my opinion, this applicant is not currently capable of managing his personal funds in a competent manner.

He has a borderline ability to understand, retain and follow instructions, a borderline ability to sustain attention to perform simple repetitive tasks, borderline ability to relate to others, including fellow workers and supervisors, and a below average ability to ...


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