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Haltie v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 8, 2015

RENEE E. HALTIE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


GENE E.K. PRATTER United States District Judge

Renee Haltie brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3), which incorporates by reference 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). After independent consideration of the Administrative Record, submitted pleadings, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter’s Report and Recommendation, Ms. Haltie’s Objections thereto, and the Commissioner’s Response to the Objections, the Court declines to adopt the Report and Recommendation. Although the Court cannot conclude that Ms. Haltie is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Court likewise cannot conclude that there was substantial evidence for the Administrative Law Judge’s determination that Ms. Haltie is not disabled. In particular, the Court is unable to conclude that substantial evidence supports the Administrative Law Judge’s discrediting of the medical opinions from two examining sources and discrediting of Ms. Haltie’s testimony. Accordingly, the Court grants in part and denies in part Ms. Haltie’s Request for Review and will remand the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background

Ms. Haltie alleges that she has been disabled since January 1, 2011, as a result of back pain. Ms. Haltie’s claim for benefits was initially denied by the Social Security Administration, and she then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held before the ALJ on June 26, 2012. The ALJ heard testimony from Ms. Haltie and from a vocational expert.

Ms. Haltie was 61 years old at the time of the hearing before the ALJ. She has a high school education and has worked as a commercial cleaner and as a cashier. She worked as recently as January 2010 as a part-time supermarket cashier and clerk. She left her job at the supermarket because, according to her testimony at the hearing, the supermarket would not accommodate her need to sit every fifteen minutes or her difficulty lifting items such as cases of water or soda. She did seek full time employment following the end of her employment with the supermarket but was not offered any positions. She testified that she was browsing for cashier positions where she could sit down throughout her shift and not lift heavy items like she had as a supermarket clerk.

Ms. Haltie testified that she has good days and bad days and takes pain medicine as needed for her back. However, even if she takes the pain medicine for her back, lifting items heavier than five pounds nonetheless will cause her pain. Also, the medicine causes occasional side effects such as dizziness, sleepiness, and dry mouth. On Ms. Haltie’s bad days, which she has three or four times a week, she “can’t even get out of bed.” R. 54. She testified that she performed household chores such as cooking, washing dishes, occasionally making her bed, dusting, and sweeping. She also likes to watch cooking shows on television, read, and garden, although she can only garden “a little bit.” R. 46. She does not shop, do laundry, or take out the trash-her daughters help with these and other household chores.

The ALJ reached a decision denying Ms. Haltie’s claim for disability benefits on August 17, 2012. Specifically, the ALJ found that Ms. Haltie was limited to medium work[1] and therefore could perform her past relevant work. The Appeals Council denied review of that decision on October 23, 2013. Ms. Haltie then sought judicial review of the ALJ’s decision pursuant 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The case was referred to Magistrate Judge Rueter for a Report and Recommendation. Magistrate Judge Rueter recommended denying Ms. Haltie’s request for review. Ms. Haltie objected to that recommendation.

II. Standard of Review When a party makes a timely and specific objection to a portion of a Report and Recommendation, the district court applies a de novo review to the issues raised on objection. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674-75 (1980). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations of the magistrate judge. Id.

However, the district court may review the ALJ’s final decision only in order to determine “whether that decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). Stated differently, the court “is bound by the ALJ’s findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence on the record.” 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, 181 F.3d at 360 (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552 (1988)). The court may not “weigh the evidence, ” Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1183 (3d Cir. 1992), and “will not set the Commissioner’s decision aside if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if [the court] would have decided the factual inquiry differently, ” Hartranft, 181 F.3d at 360.

An ALJ’s decision must present sufficient explanation of the final determination to provide a reviewing court with the benefit of the factual basis underlying the ultimate disability finding. Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704-05 (3d Cir. 1981) (citing S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 94 (1943)). While the ALJ need only discuss the most pertinent, relevant evidence bearing upon a claimant’s disability status, the ALJ must provide sufficient discussion to allow the court to determine whether any rejection of potentially significant, probative evidence was proper. Johnson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 203-04 (3d Cir. 2008) (citing Burnett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000); Cotter, 642 F.2d at 706).

A claimant bears the burden to show disability because he or she is unable to engage in “any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). Under the regulations implementing the Act, the Commissioner uses a five-step sequential process to determine whether a person is “disabled.”[2] The claimant satisfies the burden of proving disability by showing an inability to return to his past relevant work. Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 2005). Once the claimant makes this showing, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that, given the claimant’s age, education, and work experience, the claimant has the ability to perform specific jobs existing in the economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); see Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 551.

III. Discussion

Ms. Haltie raises several objections to the Report and Recommendation. These objections fall into two general categories: (1) the ALJ failed to adequately weigh the opinion testimony of the medical experts; and (2) the ALJ failed to adequately consider the testimony of Ms. ...

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