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Plouffe v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 26, 2017



          SCHMEHL, Judge.

         Currently pending before the Court are Plaintiff's Objections to the Report and Recommendation of former United States Magistrate Judge M. Faith Angell. For the reasons that follow, the Court sustains one of the Objections and remands this action to the Commissioner of Social Security for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.


         On August 19, 2011, Plaintiff protectively filed a claim for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. (ECF 10-2 at 25.) His claim alleged disability beginning October 10, 2009. (Id.) The state agency denied Plaintiff's application on January 26, 2012. (Id.) Plaintiff timely requested a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). (Id.) The ALJ conducted a video hearing on October II, 2012, at which time plaintiff, his sister and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. (Id. at 46-95.) On November 2, 2012, the ALJ issued her Decision deeming Plaintiff “not disabled” at any time from October 10, 2009 through the date of her decision, November 2, 2012. (Id. at 25-39.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine with back pain and foraminal stenosis of the lumbar spine, small, right, central disc protrusions at ¶ 6-T7 and T7-T8, hypertension, Crohn's disease, frozen left shoulder, degenerative joint disease of the right knee with pain, obesity, and diabetes.” (Id. at 28.) However, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that meets or medically exceeds the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id. at 30.)

         The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the “residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), with the exception of occasional pushing and pulling with the upper left extremity and occasional pushing and pulling with the right lower extremity”. (Id. at 31.) The ALJ stated that Plaintiff “can occasionally balance, stoop, crouch and climb ramps and stairs”, but that he “can never kneel, crawl, or climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds.” (Id.) The ALJ stated that Plaintiff “is able to frequently reach with his upper left extremity including in front, laterally, and overhead.” (Id.) According to the ALJ, Plaintiff “can have occasional exposure to extreme heat, cold and wetness as well as occasional exposure to vibrations, noise and hazardous conditions including unprotected heights and moving machinery.” (Id.)

         Based on this RFC and Plaintiff's age, education, and work experience, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled and that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as an attorney, a professor, or an online editor. (Id. at 38.) Plaintiff filed an appeal from this decision and, on February 21, 2014, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's ruling the final decision of the agency. (Id. at 2-5.)

         Plaintiff initiated the present civil action in this Court on May 22, 2014. (ECF 3.) His Request for Review set forth eight alleged errors: (1) the ALJ did not fulfill her duty to develop the record; (2) the Appeals Council erred in not considering new evidence plaintiff submitted on appeal; (3) The ALJ erred in not properly evaluating the expert opinions of treating physicians and state agency consultants; (4) The ALJ erred in not considering the Department of Welfare's disability finding; (5) The ALJ erred in not recognizing plaintiff's failing spinal fusion, syncope, angina, sleep problems, and mental limitations as severe impairments; (6) The ALJ erred in failing to properly evaluate plaintiff's pain record; (7) The ALJ erred in misstating the VE's testimony; and (8) the ALJ erred in evaluating plaintiff and his sister's credibility. (ECF 22.) On July 29, 2016, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) recommending that Plaintiff's Request for Review be denied. (ECF 31.)

         Plaintiff subsequently filed Objections to the R&R. (ECF 34.) The objections essentially consist of the same issues he raised before the Magistrate Judge. (Id.)


         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 if it is 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)). 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 [the ALJ's decision] from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).

         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 ...

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