United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM OPINION INTRODUCTION
I. QUIÑONES ALEJANDRO, U.S.D.C.J.
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. The ultimate issue for judicial review is
whether Defendant's final decision is supported by
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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).
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.
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. §
Social Security regulations provide for a five-step
sequential evaluation process for determining whether an
individual is disabled. 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. §
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.
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
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.
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.
in the interests of judicial economy, each of Plaintiff's
objections is addressed below.
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
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,  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.
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). 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