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Mari v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 8, 2017

LINDA MARI, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Paul S. Diamond, J.

         Plaintiff Linda Mari challenges the denial of her application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income. (Pl.'s Req. for Review, Doc. No. 10.) The Magistrate Judge has recommended granting Plaintiff's Request for Review and remanding for further administrative proceedings. (R. & R., Doc. No. 16.) Both Plaintiff and the Commissioner have filed objections. (Def.'s Obj., Doc No. 17; Pl.'s Resp., Doc. No. 19.) I will overrule Plaintiff's objections and sustain in part those of the Commissioner.


         On March 2, 2011, Plaintiff, then 33 years old, filed her application, alleging the December 2006 onset of total disability, including upper back pain, left arm numbness, depression, anxiety, and learning difficulties. (R. 17, 295-299.) Throughout the inquiring disability proceedings, Plaintiff held part-time employment as a concert-hall “greeter.” (R. 30, 64-65.) Plaintiff appealed the Social Security Administration's denial of her application. (R. 139-148.) The ALJ conducted a hearing and denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits. (R. 39-59, 115-128, 150, 161.) The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and remanded in October 2014. (R. 134-137.) After a hearing on February 23, 2015, the ALJ again denied Plaintiff's claim, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled at the fifth step of the sequential evaluation process because there are jobs in the national economy that she could perform. (R. at 14-38, 60-86.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and Plaintiff filed the instant action. (R. at 1-6.) On March 22, 2017, Magitsrate Judge issued her Report and Recommendation. (R&R, Doc. No. 16.)


         I must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986). “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. 552, 565, 108 S.Ct. 2531, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988)). “The presence of evidence in the record that supports a contrary conclusion does not undermine the Commissioner's decision so long as the record provides substantial support for that decision.” Malloy v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 306 F. App'x 761, 764 (3d Cir. 2009).

         I must review de novo those portions of the Report and Recommendation or specific proposed findings of fact to which objection is made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 195 (3d Cir. 2011). I may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, [the Magistrate Judge's] findings and recommendations.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). It is also within my discretion to rely on the findings and recommendations of the Magistrate Judge to which no objection has been made. See United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980).


         A. The Commissioner's Objections

         The Commissioner objects to the Magistrate Judge's recommendation that I remand so that the ALJ may correct both his assessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity and hypothetical to the Vocational Expert. (Def.'s Obj., Doc. No. 17.) First, the ALJ described Plaintiff's RFC as follows:

[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 41.6.967(B) except she can lift up to twenty pounds. She can stand and/or walk for six hours total in an eight hour workday. She can sit for six hours total in an eight-hour workday. She can perform no tasks involving detailed instructions. She is unable to do the same repetitive motion continuously throughout the day, such as in an assembly line, but she is able to do a variety of functions bilaterally.

         (R. 23.) Based on this RFC, the ALJ posed the following hypothetical to the Vocational Expert:

I would like you to consider, hypothetically, an individual 41 years of age with training, education, and experience as in the present case, who is able to lift 20 pounds, stand and walk six hours in an eight hour day, sit for six or more hours in an eight hour day. Non-exertional limitations, no detailed instructions and is unable to do the same repetitive motion continuously throughout the day but is able to do - or, such as an assembly line, but is able to do a variety of functions bilaterally. Given those facts and circumstances, is there any work the hypothetical individual could perform on a sustained basis, including past work of the claimant.

(R. 81-82.)

         Although the Magistrate Judge found that this RFC and hypothetical did not adequately address Plaintiff's exertional and non-exertional limitations, the Commissioner argues that there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ's formation of this RFC and hypothetical and raises three specific objections. (Def.'s Obj., Doc. No. 17.)

         Exclusion of Plaintiff's Social Functioning Limitations

         The Commissioner objects to the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that the ALJ erred in failing to include on the RFC and hypothetical question Plaintiff's mild limitations in social functioning. (Def.'s Obj. 3; R&R 20-21.) I agree.

         An ALJ's hypothetical question “must reflect all of a claimant's impairments that are supported by the record; otherwise the question is deficient and the expert's answer to it cannot be considered substantial evidence.” Ramirez v. Barnhart, 372 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2004). The ALJ may nonetheless omit an impairment that is “minimal or negligible.” Id. at 555; see also Stewart v. Astrue, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75681, at *67-69 (E.D. Pa. May 31, 2012) (Strawbridge, U.S.M.J.), adopted by 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 161757 (E.D. Pa. Nov. 13, 2012) (claimant's mild limitations in social functioning and other categories were so minimal or negligible that the ALJ did not err by not including these limitations in the RFC and hypothetical to the VE).

         Here, the ALJ could have included Plaintiff's mood disorder in his list of Plaintiff's impairments, provided he found that the disorder “may impose more than minimal limitations on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities.” (R&R 20; R. 20.) He found, however- with ample record support-that this mental impairment's impact on Plaintiff's social functioning was mild. (R&R 20; R. 21.) Dr. Smith observed that Plaintiff had a slight restriction in interacting appropriately with supervisors, and no restrictions in interacting appropriately with the public and co-workers. (Tr. 774.) Similarly, Dr. Tarter characterized Plaintiff's social functioning limitations as mild. (R. 23, 94, 96-97.) Finally, Plaintiff's testimony respecting her employment as a part-time information clerk and greeter for seven years-and her ongoing employment as a greeter throughout her disability proceedings-further support the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff's social impairment was mild. (R. 30, 64-65); see also, Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 554-556 (3d Cir. 2005) (ALJ does not have to include in its hypothetical limitations that have been “reasonably discounted” by other evidence on the record such as claimant's testimony); Christian v. Colvin, No. 15-3762, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10137, at *52 (E.D. ...

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