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Nixon-Gross v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 27, 2018

EVETTE NIXON-GROSS, Petitioner,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Respondent.

          OPINION

          Slomsky, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court are the Objections of Plaintiff Evette Nixon-Gross to the Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge. (Doc. No. 13.) On August 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint against Defendant Commissioner of the Social Security Administration alleging that Defendant wrongfully denied Plaintiff disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434. (Doc. No. 1.) On March 30, 2017, the Court referred the case to Magistrate Judge Strawbridge for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”). (Doc. No. 11.) On September 29, 2017, Magistrate Judge Strawbridge issued the R&R, recommending that Plaintiff's request for review be denied. (Doc. No. 12.) On October 4, 2017, Plaintiff timely filed Objections. (Doc. No. 13.) On October 5, 2017, Defendant filed a Response to Plaintiff's Objections. (Doc. No. 15.)

         Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), the Court has conducted a de novo review of the portions of the R&R to which objections have been made. After independently reviewing the Administrative Record (“Record”) and for reasons that follow, the Court will adopt and approve the R&R (Doc. No. 12) in its entirety.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Evette Nixon-Gross was born on April 9, 1962 and was forty-nine years old on the date her alleged disability began. (Administrative Record (“R.”) at 182.) Plaintiff is a college graduate. (R. at 207.) From 1995 to 2007, she was employed full time as a contract specialist and project manager for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and from 2008 to 2012, she was employed full time as a school district police officer. (Id.)

         On November 29, 2012, Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging a disability commencing February 12, 2012. (R. at 182.) It is unclear from the Record what occurred on February 12, 2012 to cause Plaintiff's disability, but this was the date that Plaintiff notified the school district that she needed to take medical leave. (R. at 181.) On March 1, 2012, Plaintiff sought psychological services. (R. at 354.) On March 21, 2012, while on leave, she was involved in a motor vehicle accident. (R. at 318.) The accident left her unable to work and led to her formal separation from the school district in October 2012. (R. at 566.) In her application for DIB, Plaintiff reported that her ability to work was limited by depression, anxiety, left facet injury, panic attacks, cervical spine sprain and strain, protruding lumbar disc, and deformity of left wrist/severe pain. (R. at 206.)

         On February 15, 2013, Plaintiff's application was denied (R. at 115-19), and on March 8, 2013, she requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (R. at 132). On June 13, 2014, an administrative hearing was held before ALJ Regina Warren. (R. at 40-100.) At the hearing, Plaintiff was represented by counsel, and Plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. (R. at 22.) In addition to hearing testimony, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's medical records from various physicians. (R. at 274-355.)

         On December 30, 2014, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act and denied her request for DIB. (R. at 33.) Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision with the Social Security Appeals Council (R. at 17-18), and on June 20, 2016, the Appeals Council denied her request (R. at 1-4).

         On August 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. No. 1.) The Court referred the matter to Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge for an R&R. (Doc. No. 11.) On September 29, 2017, the Magistrate Judge filed an R&R recommending that Plaintiff's request for review be denied. (Doc. No. 12.) On October 4, 2017, Plaintiff filed Objections to the R&R (Doc. No. 13), which are now ripe for a decision.

         B. Relevant Social Security Administration Regulations

         To prove a “disability, ” a claimant must demonstrate “the inability to do 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 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). The claimant has the burden of proving the existence of a disability and can satisfy this burden by showing an inability to return to former work. Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979). If she does so, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that, given the claimant's age, education, and work experience, she is able to perform specific jobs that exist in the national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f).

         When evaluating a disability, the Social Security Administration uses a five-step process, which is followed in a set order:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled.
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled.
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled.
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled.
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot ...

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