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Phillips v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 29, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          STENGEL, C.J.


         Kimberly Phillips requests judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. United States Magistrate Judge Elizabeth T. Hey issued a Report & Recommendation (“the Report”) recommending that the Commissioner's final decision be vacated and the matter remanded for further proceedings. The Commissioner objected to the Report, and the plaintiff responded. For the reasons set forth below, I will adopt Judge Hey's recommendation and will vacate and remand the Commissioner's final decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In her Report, Judge Hey summarized the procedural history as follows:

Plaintiff filed a protective application for DIB on August 9, 2012, alleging that she had been unable to work since July 30, 2010. Tr. at 123-29, 136. Plaintiff's date last insured for purposes of DIB is March 31, 2012. Id. at 41, 78, 136, 164. The application was denied initially, see id. at 86-89, and Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing which was held before an ALJ [administrative law judge] on January 28, 2014. Id. at 37-76. On April 11, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of sedentary work as of her date last insured of March 31, 2012, and was therefore not disabled. Id. at 25-26, 31-32. On July 20, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, id. at 1-6, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
Plaintiff filed her complaint in this action on September 23, 2015, and submitted a Brief and Statement of Issues in Support of Request for Review on December 31, 2015. Docs. 3 & 8. Defendant filed a response on February 2, 2016, and Plaintiff filed a reply brief on February 11, 2016. Docs. 10 & 11. Thereafter, the Honorable Lawrence F. Stengel referred the matter to the undersigned for a Report and Recommendation. Doc. 12.

(Doc. No. 14, at 1-2 (footnote omitted).)

         Judge Hey recommended finding in the plaintiff's favor on both issues appealed. First, her Report found that the administrative law judge's (ALJ's) finding at step two of the sequential analysis and his RFC assessment were not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not determine the onset date of the plaintiff's mental impairment and did not incorporate relevant limitations in his RFC assessment. (Id. at 24, 30.) Specifically, Judge Hey's Report stated that “the medical evidence supports Plaintiff's testimony that anxiety and panic attacks existed prior to her date last insured, that these mental health impairments had more than a minimal impact on her ability to do basic work activities, and that the ALJ erred in failing to incorporate limitations caused by these impairments into his RFC assessment.” (Id. at 24.)

         Second, the Report concluded that the ALJ erred when he “gave probative weight to the RFC assessment made by a physical therapist[2] who did not make an assessment of Plaintiff's ability to stand/walk two hours per day as required to perform sedentary work, and no treating medical source provided an opinion as to Plaintiff's ability in this regard.” (Id. at 30.) Judge Hey noted that “[t]he absence of an assessment regarding Plaintiff's ability to stand/walk is particularly significant in this case, given Plaintiff's morbid obesity, her chronic knee pain, crepitus, and undisputed need for total knee replacement, and her history of rehabilitative difficulties related to her knee.” (Id.)

         The defendant filed objections to Judge Hey's Report on April 7, 2017. (Doc. No. 15.) The plaintiff filed a response to the defendant's objections on April 14, 2017. (Doc. No. 17.) The matter is ripe for decision.


         The U.S. District Court reviews de novo the portions of a magistrate judge's report & recommendation to which a party objects and “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).

         In reviewing the ALJ's decision, the district court must determine whether it was supported by “substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Monsour Medical 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.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (internal quotation mark omitted); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (stating that substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla”). If substantial evidence supports a ...

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