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Booker v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 8, 2017

SHERINA BOOKER Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION INTRODUCTION

          NITZA I. QUIÑONES ALEJANDRO, U.S.D.C.J.

         On August 28, 2014, Plaintiff Sherina Booker (“Plaintiff”) filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the final adverse decision of Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Defendant”), which denied her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f.[1] The ultimate issue for judicial review is whether Defendant's final decision is supported by substantial evidence.

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), this matter was referred to United States Magistrate Judge Lynne A. Sitarski for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”). On April 7, 2016, the R&R was filed, which recommended that Plaintiff's request for review and motion for summary judgment be denied. [ECF 21]. Plaintiff filed timely objections to the R&R, [ECF 26], to which Defendant filed a response. [ECF 28]. The issues and objections presented by Plaintiff have been thoroughly argued and are, therefore, ripe for disposition.

         After a comprehensive de novo review of the objections to the R&R, the administrative record, and the parties' submissions, for the reasons set forth herein, this Court finds no merit to Plaintiff's objections. Therefore, the R&R is approved and adopted, and Plaintiff's request for review and motion for summary judgment are denied.

         BACKGROUND

         The factual and procedural histories of this case are detailed in the R&R and need not be recited herein in their entirety except where necessary to address Plaintiff's objections. These objections consist of claims that the Magistrate Judge erred in finding that:

1. The ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's mental impairments and concluded that her mental impairment imposed no work-related limitations.
2. The ALJ did not ignore evidence, without explanation, that conflicted with the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff can perform the standing and walking requirements of light work.
3. The ALJ made proper credibility determinations regarding Plaintiff's testimony and provided a means for this Court to review them. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's errors render the ALJ decision unsupported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff objects to the Report and Recommendation's rejection of her claims and conclusion that the Acting Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence.

         Defendant disagrees with Plaintiff that the Magistrate Judge erred and argues that Plaintiff's objections are the same arguments raised in her statement of issues in support of judicial review and that substantial evidence of record exists to support the ALJ's findings and conclusions. This Court agrees.

         LEGAL STANDARDS

         When considering objections to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, a court must undertake a de novo review of the portions of the report and recommendation to which the plaintiff has objected. See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Cont'l Cas. Co. v. Dominick D'Andrea, Inc., 150 F.3d 245, 250 (3d Cir. 1998); Martinez , 2011 WL 4974445, at *2. In order to qualify for de novo review, “an objecting party must identify specific errors in the magistrate judge's analysis without simply rehashing arguments already raised to the magistrate judge.” Martinez, 2011 WL 4974445, at *2; see also Goney v. Clark, 749 F.2d 5, 6-7 (3d Cir. 1984) (noting that de novo review of objections is not appropriate when such review would undermine efficiency of the magistrate system); Becker v. Tennis, 2011 WL 2550544, at *1 n.3 (E.D. Pa. June 23, 2011) (court declining to address contentions included in petitioner's objections, concluding that they are “nothing more than a restatement of the underlying claims contained in his petition.”). The district court “may accept, reject or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The Social Security Act provides for judicial review of any “final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The review of a Commissioner's decision is, however, limited in scope. When reviewing an administrative decision denying social security benefits, the court must uphold any factual determination made by the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) that is supported by substantial evidence. Id. The court may not independently weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusions for those reached by the ALJ. Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011); Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Instead, the court is limited to determining whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings of fact. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Martinez v. Astrue, 2011 WL 4974445, at *1 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 19, 2011) (quoting Gilmore v. Barnhart, 356 F.Supp.2d 509, 511 (E.D. Pa. 2005)); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005).

         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.” Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552. Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Id. (quoting Ginsburg v. Richardson, 436 F.2d 1146, 1148 (3d Cir. 1971)). A “Commissioner's findings ‘as to any fact' if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” Gilmore, 356 F.Supp.2d at 511 (quoting, 42 U.S.C. §405(g)). The “substantial evidence test is ‘deferential.'” Ray v. Astrue, 649 F.Supp.2d 391, 398 (E.D. Pa. 2009) (quoting Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986)). Credibility determinations are reserved for the ALJ. Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 871, 873 (3d Cir. 1983) (internal citations omitted). Although the court reviews the record as a whole to determine whether substantial evidence supports a factual finding, it may not weigh the evidence, 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.” Ray, 649 F.Supp.2d at 398-99 (quoting Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999)). However, the court must conduct a plenary review of the administrative law judge's legal conclusions, Payton v. Barnhart, 416 F.Supp.2d 385, 387 (E.D. Pa. 2006), and may overturn the decision for legal error even if the decision was supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         To prove entitlement to social security disability benefits, a claimant, such as Plaintiff, must demonstrate that she has a physical and/or mental impairment of such a severity that she is not only unable to do her previous work but cannot, considering her age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful activity which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area where she resides, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for her, or whether she would be hired if she applied for work. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Social Security regulations provide for a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled.[2] The claimant bears the burden of establishing steps one through four, with the burden shifting to the Commissioner at the fifth step to establish that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Poulos v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 92 (3d Cir. 2007). Of note, the functional equivalence analysis in step four “involves substantially different criteria than those used to determine medical equivalence.” See Mills-Sorrells v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 153 F.Supp.3d 703, 712 n.8 (E.D. Pa. 2015); compare 20 C.F.R. § 416.926 (stating the standards for medical equivalence) with Id. § 416.926a (stating the standards for functional equivalence). Although the same evidence may be considered when engaging in both analyses, the analyses and their respective criteria are wholly distinct. See Mills-Sorrells, 153 F.Supp.3d at 712 n.8. Under the current framework, an ALJ can dispense with a functional equivalence analysis altogether if a claimant's impairment meets or medically equals an Appendix listing, but not vice versa. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d)(1).

         DISCUSSION

         In this matter, following an evidentiary hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial activity since July 13, 2011, the onset date of Plaintiff's alleged disability, (Step one determination); that Plaintiff's physical conditions constituted “severe” impairments within the meaning of the Social Security regulations, but that her mental impairments were, at most, mild limitations and were not “severe” mental limitations (Step two determination); that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments which met, medically equaled, or functionally equaled the severity of any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (“the Appendix”) (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926) (Step three determination); that Plaintiff had the residual function capacity (“RFC”) to perform her past relevant work as a cashier but with certain physical limitations (Step four determination); and that other jobs existed in the national economy that Plaintiff was able to perform in light of her RFC, (Step five determination). (R&R at 10-11). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security regulations since she could perform her past relevant work and/or other jobs in the national economy.

         In her request for judicial review, Plaintiff argued that the ALJ erred in: (1) determining at step two that Plaintiff's mental impairments were not severe, and in failing to incorporate the limitations arising from those impairments in the RFC analysis at step four, [ECF 13 at 15-19]; (2) failing to consider certain material evidence when finding that Plaintiff retained RFC to perform the standing and walking requirements of light work, (Id. at 7-14); (3) failing to make a proper credibility assessment and/or sufficiently assess Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain, (Id. at 14-15); and (4) not incorporating all of Plaintiff's credibly established limitations when posing a hypothetical question to the VE. (Id. at 19-21).

         Similarly, in her objections to the R&R, Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge erred in: (1) finding that substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ's determination at the step two analysis that Plaintiff's mental impairments were not severe; (2) concluding that the ALJ did not need to incorporate Plaintiff's mental impairments in the step four analysis, which included the state agency reviewing psychologist's opinion that Plaintiff has moderate limitations in her ability to understand detailed instructions; (3) concluding that substantial evidence exists to establish that Plaintiff could perform the standing and walking requirements of light work; (4) finding that the ALJ considered all relevant evidence when making the RFC determination; and (5) concluding that the ALJ properly considered Plaintiff's credibility and subjective complaints of pain.[3]

         After a careful reading of Plaintiff's objections, this Court finds that these objections “simply rehash” the arguments presented in Plaintiff's request for judicial review which were thoroughly addressed by the Magistrate Judge in her well-reasoned 30-page R&R. Therefore, this Court does not need to perform a de novo review, nor is one warranted, since doing so would “defeat any benefit of judicial efficiency gained by the report and recommendation process.” Palmer v. Astrue, 2010 WL 1254266, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010) (quoting Morgan v. Astrue, 2009 WL 3541001, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 30, 2009)); see also Becker, 2011 WL 2550544, at *1 n.3.

         However, in the interests of judicial economy, each of Plaintiff's objections is addressed below.

         First Objection - Step Two Analysis of Severe Mental Impairments Briefly, in her first objection, Plaintiff argues that the Magistrate Judge erred: (a) in agreeing with the ALJ's finding, at step two, that Plaintiff's mental impairments were not “severe, ” and that the ALJ's finding was supported by substantial evidence, and (b) in finding that if the ALJ erred in this regard, the error was “harmless.” [ECF 26 at 6]. Based on a review of the record, this Court disagrees with Plaintiff's contentions.

         As noted, at step two of the five-step sequential analysis, an ALJ must determine whether a claimant has a “severe” medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that meets the duration requirement of 20 CRF § 404.1509. Newell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987)). Here, the ALJ found that in addition to having two severe physical impairments, [4] Plaintiff had two medically determinable mental impairments; i.e.; an adjustment disorder and a cocaine dependence, in remission. (R&R at 10). The ALJ concluded that these mental impairments, based on the lack of medical records and on the fact that Plaintiff had discontinued treatment for these conditions in 2010 and had not sought mental health treatment since the date of her application for benefits in 2011, were not severe. (Id. at 13). This Court finds no error in these determinations and reasoning, and opines that a review of the record supports the ALJ's step two analysis.

         In addition, the ALJ analyzed Plaintiff's mental impairments under the four functional areas required by the relevant regulations, and reached the same conclusions. (Id. at 13-14; R. 17). “An impairment or combination of impairments is not severe if it does not significantly limit your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R § 404.1521(a). When evaluating whether a claimant's alleged mental impairment is severe, an ALJ must evaluate the record to determine the degree of the claimant's limitations in four broad functional areas: (1) activities of daily living; (2) social functioning; (3) concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c).[5] These functional areas are known as the “paragraph B” criteria. The limitations identified in the paragraph B criteria are not the RFC assessment analysis of step four but instead are used to rate the severity of mental impairments at steps two and three. (R. 17). If an ALJ rates a claimant's degree of limitations in the first three functional areas as “none” or “mild, ” and “none” in the fourth area, the ALJ must conclude that the alleged mental impairments are not severe. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(d)(1). An ALJ may determine that an impairment is not severe “only if the evidence establishes a slight abnormality or a combination [thereof] which have no more than a minimal effect on an individual's ...


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