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Huff v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

May 31, 2017

MARY HUFF, Plaintiff,


          C. DARNELL JONES, II J.

         Plaintiff Mary Huff claims she is disabled and, therefore, entitled to supplemental income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Huff commenced the instant action seeking judicial review of the Social Security Administration's decision denying her claim for the second time. This Court referred the matter to the Honorable M. Faith Angell, U.S. Magistrate Judge, for a report and recommendation (R&R). Before this Court are Plaintiff's Objections to Judge Angell's R&R. After an independent review of the record and the parties' briefs, Plaintiff's Objections are overruled and Judge Angell's R&R is approved and adopted in its entirety.

         Relevant Background

         Review of the second denial of Plaintiff's claim depends, in part, on this Court's prior decision to remand Plaintiff's original claim.

         I. This Court's Decision to Remand Plaintiff's Original Disability Claim

         Huff was 48 years old when she initially filed a Title XVI application claiming disability due to a long list of infirmities, including fibromyalgia and migraine headaches. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) denied that original claim. Admin R. 10-13, 17, ECF No. 8-2.

         In that initial decision, the ALJ determined that Huff did not suffer from severe fibromyalgia or migraine headaches within the meaning of the applicable Social Security regulations. He found instead that two of her other impairments were severe: degenerative disc disease and mood disorder. The ALJ also found that Huff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to do a limited range of light work, specifically lifting 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally and performing simple one- to two-step routine tasks with no decision-making or speed work. Considering Huff's age, eleventh-grade education, and work experience, as well as the existence of relevant jobs in the national economy that she could perform even with her limitations, the ALJ concluded that Huff was not disabled within the meaning of Title XVI. Id. at 12-18.

         Dissatisfied with that result, Huff commenced the first action in this Court, requesting review and remand on the grounds that the ALJ erred by not finding that her fibromyalgia and migraines were severe impairments and by improperly rejecting medical evidence offered by her treating physicians. See Huff v. Astrue, No. 11-cv-2626, Pl.'s Br. & SI 3-14, Dkt No. 11 (E.D.P.A. Sept. 12, 2011). Huff also claimed the ALJ incorrectly evaluated her credibility and failed to properly explain his assessment of her RFC. Id. at 14-21. This Court referred the case to the Honorable Arnold C. Rapoport, U.S. Magistrate Judge, for a report and recommendation.

         Judge Rapoport recommended remanding the case to the Social Security Administration. Admin. R. 836, ECF No. 8-14. He found the ALJ's chronological analysis of Plaintiff's “fibromyalgia contain[ed] inconsistencies that need[ed] to be re-examined, ” specifically whether the ALJ “believed that Plaintiff had been treated for fibromyalgia for an extended period of time, as would be implied by the statement that she has been on ‘multiple medications for fibromyalgia in the past, '” or whether he believed that she has only “‘recently sought treatment' for her fibromyalgia.” Id. at 827. Judge Rapoport also found that substantial evidence did not support the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff's migraines were not severe because it was based solely on the finding that “all testing had been negative” even though migraines are not typically detectable “by imaging techniques or laboratory tests.” Id. at 827-28. Lastly, he determined that “contradictory medical evidence” did not support the ALJ's decision to reject the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians. Id. at 834.

         On that basis, Judge Rapoport concluded that remand was necessary because additional analysis could impact the ALJ's RFC and credibility determinations, as well as his assessment of the vocational expert's testimony. Id. at 835. This Court adopted Judge Rapoport's R&R, and remanded the claim to the Social Security Administration (“Remand Order”).

         II. On Remand, Social Security Again Denied Plaintiff's Disability Claim

         On remand, the ALJ reached the same conclusions and again denied Huff's claim - the decision that is the subject of the present action. Admin R. 746-61, ECF No. 8-13. Plaintiff is again requesting review and remand for an award of benefits. Pl.'s Br. & SI 21, ECF No. 10. On referral from this Court, Judge Angell issued an R&R recommending that Plaintiff's claim be denied. Plaintiff filed timely Objections, which this Court now reviews.

         Standard of Review

         Objections to a magistrate judge's R&R are entitled to de novo review. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). A district court judge “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” Id. However, the review of a final decision of the Social Security Commissioner is deferential and is limited to determining whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by “substantial evidence.” 32 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1382(c)(3); see also Jenkins v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 192 F. App'x 113, 114 (3d Cir. 2006). 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. 522, 565 (1988)). In terms of the traditional burdens of proof, substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Ginsburg v. Richardson, 436 F.2d 1146, 1148 (3d Cir. 1971). In assessing whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ's decision, a court must consider all evidence of record regardless of whether the ALJ cited to it. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).


         Plaintiff's Objections raise the same issues presented before Judge Angell: (1) the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff does not have “severe fibromyalgia” or “severe migraines” is not supported by substantial evidence; (2) the ALJ rejected the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians without reasonable explanation; (3) the ALJ improperly rejected Plaintiff's testimony; and (3) the ALJ incorrectly relied on vocational expert testimony. Pl.'s Objs., ECF No. 18. Additionally, Plaintiff claims the ALJ failed to comply with the Remand Order, such failure being itself a ground for reversal. Id. at 1 (citing Sullivan v. Hudson, 490 U.S. 877, 886 (1989)). Because this Court agrees with Judge Angell's R&R in all respects, and finds the ALJ complied with the Remand Order, Plaintiff's Objections are overruled and judgment will be entered in Defendant's favor.

         I. The ALJ Sufficiently Justified His Determination that Plaintiff's Fibromyalgia and Migraines Are Not Severe

         Plaintiff claims the ALJ did not adequately address the severity of her fibromyalgia or migraines, and incorrectly found those impairments to be non-severe, thereby prejudicing his conclusion that she is not disabled. Pl.'s Objs. 2-3.

         In denying Plaintiff's disability claim a second time, the ALJ followed the five-step analysis required by the Social Security Administration's regulations, 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. See Admin. R. 747-60, ECF No. 8-13. At issue here is step two, which involves evaluating Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments and their respective severity. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii), (c). It is not enough merely to identify impairments; the ALJ must also determine whether those impairments are severe enough to warrant further analysis. See Newell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir. 2003) (if step two's severity requirement is met, the sequential analysis may proceed). In this case, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff suffered from severe degenerative disc disease and mood disorder, but not from severe fibromyalgia or migraines. Admin. R. 749-55, ECF No. 8-13. The ALJ completed the five-step analysis for the two ...

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