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Hansell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 17, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant




         On October 18, 2016, Plaintiff Maryanne Margaret Hansell (“Plaintiff”) filed a counseled complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of Carolyn W. Colvin, then the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Defendant”), which denied her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 et seq., and 1381 et seq., respectively. [ECF 1].[2] Plaintiff claims that she is disabled primarily due to symptoms and functional limitations resulting from her cervical myelopathy, cervical degenerative disc disease, and obesity.

         Consistent with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 72.1, this matter was randomly referred to United States Magistrate Judge Jacob P. Hart (the “Magistrate Judge”) for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”). [ECF 9]. On April 4, 2017, the Magistrate Judge issued a thorough and well-reasoned R&R, recommending that Plaintiff's request for review be denied. [ECF 10]. Plaintiff timely filed objections to the R&R, essentially arguing that the Magistrate Judge erred in upholding the Administrative Law Judge Jack Penca's (the “ALJ”) decision to give no weight to the opinions of Dr. Robert Centrone, M.D., Plaintiff's treating physician, or Dr. John DeCarli, D.O., the state agency's examining consultant, and “elevated” the opinion of the state agency non-examining reviewer. [ECF 11]. Defendant filed a response to the objections. [ECF 15].

         After a comprehensive de novo review of the administrative record, the R&R, Plaintiff's objections, and Defendant's response, for the reasons set forth herein, this Court overrules Plaintiff's objections, approves and adopts the R&R, and denies Plaintiff's request for review.


         The following is a succinct summary of the facts and the procedural history of this case as gleaned from the administrative record (“R.”), [ECF 6], the R&R, and Plaintiff's objections to the R&R; to wit:

On April 9 and April 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI, respectively, and indicated that she was born in 1959, had completed three years of college, had worked in managerial positions, and had alleged an onset date of disability of March 1, 2012, caused by cervical myopathy, neck and back injuries, arthritis, and patent ductus. (R. at 11, 283, 286). Plaintiff's applications were denied. (Id. at 11). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing. (Id. at 11).
On April 6, 2015, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared at a hearing before the ALJ. In the written decision dated April 23, 2015, the ALJ concluded that although Plaintiff has a severe impairment of cervical myopathy and degenerative disc disease, she had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with certain limitations, and was capable of performing her past relevant work as a fast food service manager and retail manager. (Id. at 13-17). As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act, and denied Plaintiff's DIB and SSI applications. (Id. at 17-18).
Plaintiff appealed the denial of benefits to the Appeals Council, which affirmed the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 1-3), making it the final decision of the Commissioner. This request for judicial review followed.


         To qualify for DIB and/or SSI benefits, a claimant must prove a disability. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(E); 1382(a)(1). To be disabled, a claimant must be unable “to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A).

         To determine whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ must employ a five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the Social Security Regulations (the “Regulations”). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(1), 416.920(a).[3] A claimant bears the burden of proving steps one through four by substantial evidence. See Plummer, 186 F.3d at 428. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Id. at 428. Ultimately, it is the claimant's burden to establish that he or she is disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.912(a)(1); 404.703-704.

         Judicial review of an administrative decision is limited in scope. In reviewing a final determination that a person is not disabled and, therefore, not entitled to Social Security benefits, a 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 must review the factual findings of the ALJ to determine whether the findings are supported by substantial evidence. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). Substantial evidence constitutes that which a “reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Rutherford, 399 F.3d at 552. “It 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, ...

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