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Walsh v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 8, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.



         In this action, plaintiff Patricia Walsh seeks review of the final decision of defendant, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (the “Commissioner”), denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“SSA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. The denial was based on a determination by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) that plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. By Order dated October 26, 2015, the Court referred the case to United States Magistrate Judge Marilyn Heffley for a Report and Recommendation (“R & R”). On July 28, 2016, Judge Heffley issued an R & R recommending that plaintiff's Motion and Request for Review[1] be denied. Presently before the Court are plaintiff's Objections to the R & R. For the reasons that follow, the Court approves and adopts the R & R, overrules plaintiff's Objections, and denies plaintiff's Motion and Request for Review.


         The background of this case is set forth in detail in Magistrate Judge Heffley's R & R and will be recited in this Memorandum only as necessary to address plaintiff's Objections. Plaintiff applied for SSI on April 24, 2009. Administrative R. (“R.”) 14. After her application was denied, plaintiff requested a hearing which was held on May 24, 2011. R & R 2 (citing R. 14, 100). After the hearing, the initial denial was affirmed, and plaintiff appealed. R. 14. A second hearing was held on June 13, 2013, and the ALJ again denied plaintiff's application in a decision dated November 13, 2015. R & R 2 (citing R. 14-27). In concluding that plaintiff was not disabled, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from eight severe impairments (obesity, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, bipolar disorder, depressive disorder, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder), and seven non-severe impairments. R & R 4 (citing R. 16-17). The ALJ determined that plaintiff's impairments did not, alone or in combination, meet or equal a listed impairment under the SSA. R & R 4 (citing R. 18). Based on her determination of plaintiff's limitations and the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ found that plaintiff was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy and was thus not disabled under the SSA. R & R 4-5 (citing R. 20, 26-27).

         The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on April 1, 2015, and the ALJ's determination was thus affirmed as the Commissioner's final decision. R & R 2 (citing R. 1-2). Plaintiff commenced this action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on May 13, 2015.


         A district court evaluates de novo those portions of a magistrate judge's report and recommendation to which an objection is made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). The Court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” Id.

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited. The Court reviews the Commissioner's denial of benefits to “determine whether it is supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole” and applied the correct legal standards. McCrea v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 359 (3d Cir. 2004); Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983). “Substantial evidence is ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.' Although substantial evidence is more than a mere scintilla, it need not rise to the level of a preponderance.” McCrea, 370 F.3d at 359-60 (quoting Newell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 545 (3d Cir. 2003)).

         To establish a disability under the SSA, the claimant must demonstrate some “medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity” for the statutory period. Diaz v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 503 (3d Cir. 2009) (quotation marks and citations omitted); 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). A claimant bears the initial burden of proving the existence of a disability. Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979). Once the claimant satisfies this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant “has the capacity to perform specific jobs that exist in the national economy.” Id.

         Disability claims are evaluated using a “five-step sequential evaluation” of whether a claimant: (1) is currently employed; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) can perform past relevant work based on her residual functional capacity; and (5) if not, can perform other work in view of her residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see McCrea, 370 F.3d at 360. In deciding a disability claim, “an ALJ must clearly set forth the reasons for [her] decision. Conclusory statements that a condition does not constitute a medical equivalent of a listed impairment are insufficient. The ALJ must provide a discussion of the evidence and an explanation of reasoning for [her] conclusion to sufficiently enable meaningful judicial review.” Diaz, 577 F.3d at 504 (quotation marks and citations omitted). However, the ALJ “need not employ particular magic words[, ] . . . particular language[, ] or adhere to a particular format in conducting [the] analysis.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).


         Plaintiff objects to the R & R on the grounds that Magistrate Judge Heffley erred in her conclusions that (1) the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence of plaintiff's obesity, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches; (2) substantial evidence supported the ALJ's determination that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal the criteria of the mental impairment listings; and (3) the ALJ permissibly relied on the testimony of the vocational expert. The Court addresses each objection in turn.

         A. Plaintiff's First Objection

         Plaintiff first objects to Judge Heffley's conclusion that the ALJ adequately evaluated the effects of plaintiff's obesity, fibromyalgia, and migraine headaches, and the combined effect of plaintiff's impairments. Obj. 6, 10. The Court addresses each of plaintiff's arguments in turn.

         1. Obesity

         In determining whether a claimant is disabled, “an ALJ must meaningfully consider the effects of a claimant's obesity, individually and in combination with her impairments, on her workplace function at step three and at every subsequent step.” Diaz, 577 F.3d at 504. Plaintiff makes two arguments with respect to the ALJ's consideration of plaintiff's obesity.

         First, plaintiff argues that “[t]he essence of the [R & R] appears to be that because the ALJ stated that she considered obesity, the conclusion is sufficient even though the ALJ did not undertake any substantive analysis of the actual evidence.” Obj. 6. Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed in her obligation to provide a specific ...

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