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Pailin v. Covlin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 5, 2013

CAROLYN COVLIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


RONALD L. BUCKWALTER, Senior District Judge.

Currently pending before the Court are Defendant Commissioner of Social Security's Objections to the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin. For the following reasons, the Objections are sustained.


On June 27, 2008, Plaintiff Paulette Pailin protectively an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301, et seq. (R. 148-54.)[1] Her claim alleged disability, since May 14, 2007, due to asthma, a learning disability, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"), a seizure disorder, bronchitis, and a sleep disorder. ( Id. at 203.) The record also contained diagnoses of major depressive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), knee and back pain, and anxiety. ( Id. at 69, 81, 203.) The state agency denied Plaintiff's application on September 26, 2008, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 9, 81-84.) Following the hearing-at which Plaintiff, her aunt, and a vocational expert testified-Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Owen Katzman issued a decision, dated December 23, 2009, deeming Plaintiff "not disabled." ( Id. at 9-18.) On July 7, 2010, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (id. at 1-3), making the ALJ's ruling the final decision of the agency. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1472.

Plaintiff initiated the present civil action in this Court on September 9, 2010. His Request for Review set forth three alleged errors, as follows: (1) the ALJ erred in his Step Three listing analysis; (2) the ALJ erred in his residual functional capacity ("RFC") analysis; and (3) the ALJ did not fairly consider Plaintiff's impairments of asthma, orthopedic impairments, or the entirety of her impairments in combination. On September 19, 2013, United States Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") suggesting a remand of the case due to the ALJ's failure to either properly analyze the severity of Plaintiff's ADHD, PTSD, and borderline intellectual functioning, and anxiety; or to discuss or evaluate the testimony of Plaintiff's aunt, Paulette Murrell.

Defendant filed Objections to the R&R, on September 27, 2013, asserting the following: (1) to the extent the ALJ may have erred at Step Two, any such error was harmless because the ALJ did not deny Plaintiff's claim at Step Two; and (2) the ALJ discussed and was not required to explicitly provide specific weight to Plaintiff's aunt's testimony. As no response to these Objections has been filed, they are now ripe for judicial consideration.


A. Standard for Judicial Review of an ALJ's Decision

It is well-established that judicial review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether "substantial evidence" supports the decision. Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 220 F.3d 112, 118 (3d Cir. 2000). "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)). When making this determination, a reviewing court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision and may not re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler , 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). In other words, even if the reviewing court, acting de novo , would have decided the case differently, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed when supported by substantial evidence. Id . at 1190-91; see also Gilmore v. Barnhart , 356 F.Supp.2d 509, 511 (E.D. Pa. 2005) (holding that the court's scope of review is "limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact'") (quoting Schwartz v. Halter , 134 F.Supp.2d 640, 647 (E.D. Pa. 2001)).

B. Standard of Review of Objections to a Report and Recommendation

Where 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 only those 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, a 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 v. Raddatz , 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980).


A. Whether the ALJ's Step Two Analysis Requires Remand

Defendant's first Objection concerns the Magistrate Judge's finding of error in the ALJ's severity analysis. Specifically, during his discussion at Step Two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ expressly found that Plaintiff's major depressive disorder and history of substance abuse were "severe" within the meaning of the regulations, but that her seizure disorder and asthma were not. On review of the ALJ's decision, the Magistrate Judge remarked that this analysis completely disregarded the ample evidence throughout the record of Plaintiff's ADHD, borderline intellectual functioning, PTSD, and anxiety. As such, the Magistrate Judge determined that the ALJ's failure to make a severity finding concerning such impairments required that the case be remanded for further proceedings. In the course of doing so, the Magistrate Judge also directed that the ALJ re-examine his severity findings regarding Plaintiff's seizure disorder and asthma. Defendant now objects that remand is futile because: (1) the ALJ included these ...

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