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Rodriguez v. Astrue

United States District Court, Third Circuit

January 27, 2014

BRUNILDA RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM

DuBOIS, JAN E., J.

I. INTRODUCTION

This is an action seeking review of the final decision of the Social Security Commissioner (“Commissioner”) denying plaintiff, Brunilda Rodriguez, claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). The Court referred the case to United States Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge for a Report and Recommendation. Magistrate Judge Strawbridge issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) on October 29, 2013 recommending that the Administrative Law Judge’s (“ALJ”) findings of fact and conclusions of law be affirmed. Plaintiff filed an Objection to the R&R on November 2, 2013. For the reasons that follow, plaintiff’s Objection to the R&R is sustained, the R&R is rejected, and the case is remanded to the Commissioner pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this Memorandum. Judgment is entered in favor of plaintiff and against the Commissioner.

II. BACKGROUND

The background of this case is set forth in detail in Magistrate Judge Strawbridge’s R&R and will be recited in this Memorandum only as necessary to address the issues presented by Rodriguez’s Objection.

Plaintiff contends that her disability began on September 24, 2008. R. at 60. She has been diagnosed with both physical and mental impairments, including plantar fasciitis of her left foot, depression, and anxiety. R. at 14, 367–75. Plaintiff filed an application for Social Security benefits on April 13, 2009, when she was forty-seven years old. R. at 60. The ALJ denied plaintiff’s claim on March 18, 2011, six months and one day before plaintiff’s fiftieth birthday. R. at 9.

The ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 24, 2008 and that she had severe impediments to her health. R. at 14. The ALJ found, however, that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work with some additional limitations, including (1) no heights, (2) few steps, (3) no hazardous moving machinery, (4) no more than occasional stooping, squatting, crawling, and kneeling, and (5) minimal or occasional interaction with the public or co-workers. R. at 17. Because plaintiff was under fifty at the time of the decision, the ALJ placed plaintiff in the “younger person” age range (age under fifty) without making a finding that the age range was appropriate. R. at 17–23. Upon considering plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and could perform the requirements of administrative support work, such as an addresser, document preparer, or clerk. R. at 22. The Appeals Council found no reason to review the ALJ’s decision and certified it as the final decision of the Commissioner. R. at 1.

Plaintiff brought the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the Commissioner’s decision. Plaintiff argued that (1) the ALJ made a mistake of law by mechanically applying the vocational age ranges, and (2) the RFC finding was not supported by substantial evidence. Magistrate Judge Strawbridge recommended that the ALJ’s findings of fact and conclusions of law be affirmed.

III. LEGAL STANDARD

This Court reviews the Commissioner’s final decision to determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence and applies the correct legal standards. 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). Factual findings made by the ALJ supported by substantial evidence must be accepted as conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Legal conclusions made by the ALJ are subject to plenary review. Shaudeck v. Comm’r of Social Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999).

A district court makes a de novo determination of those portions of a magistrate judge’s report and recommendation to which objection is made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). The Court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” Id.; see also Brophy v. Halter, 153 F.Supp.2d 667, 669 (E.D. Pa. 2001).

IV. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff raises only one Objection to the R&R. Plaintiff contends that, because she straddles the borderline between two age ranges, the ALJ made an error of law by mechanically applying a regulatory age range without making an individualized determination that the age range was appropriate in her case.

The regulations describing age as a vocational factor create three age ranges: (1) “younger person” (younger than fifty); (2) “person closely approaching advanced age” (fifty to fifty-four); and (3) “person of advanced age” (fifty-five or older). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563, 416.963. An ALJ “generally do[es] not consider that [the] age [of a younger person] will seriously affect [the] ability to adjust to other work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). For a person “closely approaching advanced age, ” an ALJ must consider that a claimant’s “age along with ...


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