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Hankins v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 6, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security.


THOMAS N. ONEILL, Jr., District Judge.

Plaintiff Dawn Hankins brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the adverse final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration denying her claims for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Presently before me are the objections of defendant Commissioner (Dkt. No. 20) to the report and recommendation (R&R) of Magistrate Judge M. Faith Angell remanding the Commissioner's final decision in this matter for further review (Dkt. No. 19), plaintiff's reply (Dkt. No. 22), the parties' opening briefs (Dkt. Nos. 9, 12, 14), the transcript of their oral argument before Magistrate Judge Angell (Dkt. No. 18) and the administrative record (Dkt. No. 6). For the reasons that follow, I will affirm and adopt the R&R in part and modify it in part.


Hankins was born on May 13, 1966. See AR at 70. Hankins seeks a finding of disability as of February 1, 2010. See AR at 27. Hankins last worked as a support counselor and as a companion caregiver. See AR at 32-33. Hankins contends that she is disabled due to her back impairment and affective/mood impairment. See AR at 29-30.

At step one of the five-step disability evaluation process, the administrative law judge (ALJ) deferred finding whether Hankins has engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged date of disability onset. See AR at 29. At step two, the ALJ determined that Hankins' back impairment was severe, but that her affective/mood impairment was non-severe. See AR at 29-31. At step three, the ALJ found that Hankins did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets the severity of the statutorily listed impairments. See AR at 31. The ALJ then considered both Hankins' mental and her physical limitations and found Hankins' residual functional capacity (RFC) was limited to performing a restricted range of sedentary level exertional work. See AR at 31-35. At step four, the ALJ determined that Hankins was unable to perform her past relevant work. Id . Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that Hankins did not have any acquired job skills which were transferable to occupations within her residual functional capacity, but that there were jobs in significant numbers in the national and regional economies that Hankins could perform. See AR at 35-36. Based on her finding at step five, the ALJ concluded that Hankins was not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. See AR at 37.

Hankins appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council and was denied review. See AR at 2-4. Hankins then filed this action seeking judicial review of the administrative determination. See Dkt. No. 3. Hankins contends that the ALJ failed to properly assess her residual functional capacity and did not give appropriate deference to the medical opinions in the record. See Dkt. No. 19 at ECF 7; Dkt. No. 9 at ECF 7. I referred this matter to Magistrate Judge Angell (Dkt. No. 13) who issued a R&R recommending remand of the matter to the ALJ for further review (Dkt. No. 19). The R&R finds that the ALJ properly accounted for hospitalizations, surgeries and recovery time in determining whether Hankins could work on a regular and continuing basis. The R&R also concludes, however, that the ALJ failed (1) to take Hankins' obesity into account in determining Hankins' RFC and (2) to give appropriate deference to medical opinions regarding Hankins' mental impairment at step two. See Dkt. No. 19 at ECF 10-13.

The Commissioner objects to the R&R on three grounds. First, the Commissioner contends that the R&R fails to consider Hankins' admission during the administrative hearing that she cannot meet the Social Security Act's definition of disability during the relevant period and thus the R&R should dispose of Hankins' case on that basis. See Dkt. No. 20 at ECF 2-4. Second, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ sufficiently considered Hankins' obesity pursuant to the standard set forth in Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552-53 (3d Cir. 2005). See id. at ECF 4-6. Third, the Commissioner contends that the ALJ did not improperly disregard medical opinion in her step two determination that Hankins' mental impairment is non-severe and alternatively that any error at step two was harmless. See id. at ECF 6-11.


I. Review of the Commissioner's Final Disability Decision

Final disability determinations of the Commissioner are reviewable by commencing a civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Court's review of the Commissioner's final disability determination 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." Schwartz v. Halter, 134 F.Supp.2d 640, 647 (E.D. Pa. 2001). The Court is "bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record... but exercise[s] plenary review of all legal issues...." Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2000). "Thus, even if the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence, the court can overturn that decision if it finds that it was based upon an incorrect legal standard." Lee v. Astrue, No. 06-5167, 2007 WL 1101281, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 12, 2007), citing Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983). "Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'" Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001), citing Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999).

II. Review of Objections to the R&R

A district court has discretion to determine the extent to which it will review the R&R of a magistrate judge. Bivings v. Wakefield, No. 07-929, 2009 WL 4857432, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 15, 2009); see also Jones v. Astrue, 872 F.Supp.2d 428, 430-31 (E.D. Pa. 2012). "At a minimum, the court should be satisfied that there is no clear error on the face of the record, and should give some reasoned consideration to the magistrate's report before adopting it as the decision of the court.'" Id., citing Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 878 (3d Cir. 1987). The Court reviews de novo, however, any sections of the R&R to which the parties have filed objections. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 195-96 (3d Cir. 2011). On review, the Court may accept, reject, or modify the R&R, receive more evidence or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C).


As a preliminary matter, upon review of the R&R I will affirm and adopt those sections that have not been objected to by the parties - namely the R&R's finding that the ALJ's RFC determination properly considered Hankins' hospitalizations, surgeries and recovery time in determining whether Hankins could work on ...

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