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Gorby v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

January 11, 2017


          Cohn Magistrate Judge



         Before the court for disposition is Plaintiff Brandy Gorby's appeal of the defendant's denial of her application for supplemental security income benefits. Plaintiff suffers from depression, anxiety, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, which render her completely unable to function outside of her home according to her treating psychiatrist. Magistrate Judge Gerald B. Cohn issued a report and recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”) suggesting that the appeal be denied. Plaintiff has filed objections to the R&R, bringing the case to its present posture.


         Plaintiff applied for supplemental security income[2] (hereinafter “SSI”) under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433 on May 3, 2013. (Doc. 11, Administrative Record (hereinafter “R.”) at 18). The Bureau of Disability Determination denied the application on July 12, 2013. (R. at 58-74). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (hereinafter “ALJ”). (R. at 77-79). ALJ Patrick Cutter held a hearing on June 4, 2014 and issued a decision on June 12, 2014 finding that plaintiff is not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (R. at 11-36). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. (R. at 8-10). The Appeals Council denied review on September 16, 2014. (R. at 1-6). Thus, the decision of the ALJ became the “final decision” of the Social Security Commissioner. See Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 107 (2000).

         On November 17, 2014, plaintiff instituted the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) appealing the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1). The Commissioner answered the complaint and filed the administrative transcript of proceedings on January 21, 2015. (Doc. 10, 11). The parties briefed their respective positions, and the court referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Cohn for the issuance of an R&R.

         On March 3, 2016, Magistrate Judge Cohn issued his R&R, recommending the denial of plaintiff's appeal. (Doc. 17). Plaintiff then filed objections to the report and recommendation. (Doc. 18). The government waived the opportunity to respond to the objections. (Doc. 19). The case is thus ripe for disposition.


         The court has federal question jurisdiction over this Social Security Administration appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner's final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has his principal place of business . . . .”).

         Standard of Review

         This case is before the court on objections to the magistrate judge's R&R. To dispose of such objections, the district court must make a de novo determination of those portions of the report against which objections are made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(c); see also Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir. 1983). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 877 (3d Cir. 1987). The district court judge may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions. Id.

         In reviewing a Social Security appeal, this court must determine whether “substantial evidence” supports the ALJ's decision. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hagans v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). The United States Supreme Court has defined “substantial evidence” as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has explained that “substantial evidence has been defined as ‘more than a mere scintilla;' it means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'” Hagans, 694 F.3d at 292 (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427).

         The court should not reverse the Commissioner's findings merely because evidence may exist to support the opposite conclusion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for those of the fact-finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001)(indicating that when the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, courts are bound by those findings, even if they would have decided the factual inquiry differently). In an adequately developed factual record, substantial evidence may be “something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency's finding from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo, 383 U.S. at 620.

         Substantial evidence exists only “in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, ” Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981) and “must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). “When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but ‘cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.” Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (quoting Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993)). The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 204 (3d Cir. 2008). Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).


         Sequential Evaluation Process

         To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an “inability 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) (emphasis added). An individual is incapable of engaging in “substantial gainful activity” when “his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The Commissioner evaluates supplemental security income claims with a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). This analysis requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity, [3] (2) has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe, [4] (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of a “listed impairment, ”[5] (4) has the “residual functional capacity” to return to his or her past work and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v). As part of step four, the administrative law judge must determine the claimant's residual functional capacity.[6] 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4)(iv).

         Residual functional capacity is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis. See SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184. A regular and continuing basis contemplates full-time employment and is defined as eight hours a day, five days per week or other similar schedule. Id. The residual functional capacity assessment must include a discussion of the individual's abilities. Id.; 20 C.F.R. § 416.945; Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 40 (defining residual functional capacity as that which an individual is still able to do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s)).

         In the instant case, the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the date the application was filed. (R .at 19). In fact, plaintiff had only reached seventeen years of age at the time that she filed her application. (R. at 18). The ALJ found that the plaintiff had severe impairments of depression, anxiety, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. (R. at 19, 26). Plaintiff does not, however, have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listed impairment according to the ALJ. (R. at 26). The ALJ found that plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform routine, repetitive one and two-step tasks, with a toleration of occasional changes to the work environment. Further, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of occasional decisionmaking and occasional interaction with the public, co-workers and supervisors. (R. at 28).

         The ALJ found that plaintiff had “past relevant work” as a “cook's helper”, a job that plaintiff performed for two weeks. (R. at 30). She is currently able to perform this past relevant work according to the ALJ. (Id.) Further, the vocational expert at the plaintiff's hearing found that someone with plaintiff's residual functional capacity could perform other work in the national economy such as laundry laborer, bakery worker-conveyor line, and cleaner-housekeeper. (R. at 30-31). Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. (R. at 32). As explained above, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then appealed to this court. The Magistrate Judge suggests that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision, and therefore, the instant appeal should be denied. Plaintiff then filed the instant objections.

         Plaintiff objects to the following three conclusions of the R&R: 1) the finding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assignment of weight to the medical opinions and the Listing assessment; 2) the finding that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's credibility evaluation with regard to Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores; and 3) the finding that substantial ...

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