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Mendez-Acevedo v. Colvin

United States District Court, Third Circuit

December 18, 2013

CAROLYN COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


RONALD L. BUCKWALTER, Senior District Judge.

Currently pending before the Court are Plaintiff Miguel Mendez-Acevedo's Objections to the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge Jacob P. Hart. For the following reasons, the Objections are overruled and the Report and Recommendation is approved and adopted.


On January 15, 2010, Plaintiff Miguel Mendez-Acevedo, then thirty-five years old, filed an application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301, et seq. (R. 140-51.)[1] His claim alleged disability, since December 30, 2007, due to pain and swelling in his right ankle. ( Id. at 171, 176.) He later added a claim of affective/mood disorders. (R. 63.) The state agency denied Plaintiff's application on December 28, 2010, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 64-67, 82-83.) Following the hearing-at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified-ALJ Nicholas Cerulli issued a decision, dated October 13, 2011, deeming Plaintiff "not disabled." ( Id. at 24-33, 38-60.) On February 14, 2013, 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. § 416.1572.

Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court on April 19, 2013. His Request for Review set forth two alleged errors, as follows: (1) it was legal error for the ALJ to rely upon a non-examining state agency source whose outdated opinion was offered before a vast bulk of the mental health evidence was even admitted into the record; and (2) the ALJ failed to give appropriate deference to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Pirooz Sholevar, M.D. On November 19, 2013, United States Magistrate Jacob P. Hart issued a Report and Recommendation ("R&R") recommending that Plaintiff's Request for Review be denied and that judgment be entered in favor of Defendant.

Plaintiff submitted Objections to the R&R on December 2, 2013, asserting that: (1) the ALJ improperly premised his analysis on the assumption that the non-examining State Agency opinion was based on a review of the complete medical evidence; (2) the ALJ's reasons for rejecting the treating sources opinion do not comport with Agency policy, which provides that the Agency give special deference to a treating physician's opinion; (3) the ALJ rejected the opinion of treating psychiatrist, Dr. Sholevar, without pointing to contrary medical evidence; (4) the rejection of a treating psychiatrist's medical opinion was based on evidence that was not found in the ALJ's decision; and (5) the ALJ never obtained a longitudinal picture of Plaintiff's mental illness. On December 13, 2013, Defendant filed a Response to Plaintiff's Objections, making the matter ripe for judicial review.


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).


Although Plaintiff divides his Objections into five separate arguments, they all essentially address one major alleged error-the ALJ's rejection of treating physician Dr. Sholevar's opinion in favor of the opinion from non-examining state agency physician Dr. Croyle. Accordingly, the Court addresses Plaintiff's arguments collectively.

Under applicable regulations and controlling case law, "opinions of a claimant's treating physician are entitled to substantial and at times even controlling weight." Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)). A treating source's opinion on the issue of the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment will be given controlling weight if the opinion is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2). "An ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence, but may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are provided." Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). The factors to be considered in assigning the ...

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