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Torres v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 23, 2019

LUIS TORRES
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL[1]

          MEMORANDUM

          R. BARCLAY SURRICK, J.

         Presently before the Court is an action brought by Plaintiff Luis Torres under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”), denying Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits. For the following reasons, we will approve and adopt the Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) of United States Magistrate Judge David R. Strawbridge (ECF No. 20), overrule Plaintiff's Objections (ECF No. 21), and deny Plaintiff's request for review.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         Plaintiff is currently a 44-year old male. (R. 86.)[3] He has a GED and has previously worked as a forklift operator, machine operator, sanitation employee, and landscaper. (R. 86, 89-90, 249-250.) Plaintiff filed an initial claim of disability sometime prior to May 11, 2012, in which he alleged a disability onset date of August 31, 2009. (R. 29-76.) The claim was denied and, on August 13, 2012, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) affirmed the Commissioner's denial. (R. 123-42.) There is no evidence that Plaintiff appealed that decision.

         Plaintiff filed a second application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on October 11, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of August 14, 2012, the day after the ALJ affirmed the Commissioner's decision in the first filing. (R. 154, 214.)[4] The claims were based on the following conditions: depression; anxiety; back, leg, hand, wrist, and shoulder pain; back injury; diabetes; dislocated shoulder; knee problems; and panic attacks. (R. 248.) On January 31, 2013, and February 22, 2013, respectively, the claims were denied. (R. 154-55.) On March 25, 2013, Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing. (R. 168-70.) The ALJ held a hearing on August 12, 2014. (R. 77-122.) On December 5, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R. 9-28.) That same day, Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's decision. (R. 1, 7-8.) On March 26, 2016, Plaintiff's request for review was denied. (R. 1-3.)

         On May 26, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court against the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (ECF No. 3.) On April 27, 2018, Magistrate Judge David Strawbridge issued an R&R recommending denial of Plaintiff's request for review. (R&R, ECF No. 20.) Plaintiff filed Objections to the R&R on May 14, 2018. (Pl.'s Objs., ECF No. 21.) On May 21, 2018, Defendant filed a Response to Plaintiff's Objections. (Def.'s Resp. to Pl.'s Objs., ECF No. 23.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         When a plaintiff makes a timely and specific objection to a portion of a R&R, the district court must engage in de novo review of the issues raised on objection. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). In so doing, the court may “accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations” contained in the report. Id. The court may also, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, rely on the magistrate judge's proposed findings and recommendations. United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 676 (1980).

         Review of an ALJ's findings of fact is limited to determining whether or not substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). “The Court is bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record.” Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). “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) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In Plaintiff's Request for Review, he raised five issues. First, Plaintiff argued that the ALJ did not adequately explain his finding at Step Three that Plaintiff's mental impairments, singly or in combination, do not meet or equal any of the medical listings.[5] Plaintiff also argued, on four different grounds, that the ALJ's finding at Step Four, regarding Plaintiff's residual functional capacity, was not supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff now raises specific Objections to the Magistrate Judge's determination that the ALJ did not err with respect to each of the issues raised in his Request for Review. We will address each Objection separately.

         Initially, we note that we are tasked with reviewing de novo only those portions of the R&R that have been specifically objected to by a claimant. 8 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). Courts in this circuit have held that if a plaintiff's objections to the R&R simply rehash arguments that he or she previously made in the request for review, then de novo review by the district court is not required. See Gain v. Colvin, No. 12-5964, 2013 WL 6330658, at *2-4 (E.D. Pa. Dec. 5, 2013) (declining to review objections that claimant made to R&R because “objecting party must identify specific errors in the magistrate judge's analysis without simply rehashing arguments already raised to the magistrate judge”); Martinez v. Astrue, No. 10-5863, 2011 WL 4974445, at *3-4 (E.D. Pa. Oct. 19, 2011) (citing cases, and stating that “[r]epeatedly, courts, both within and outside of the Third Circuit, have held that objections which merely rehash arguments presented to and considered by a magistrate judge are not entitled to de novo review”); Palmer v. Astrue, No. 09-820, 2010 WL 1254266, at *6 (E.D. Pa. Mar. 31, 2010) (“Addressing those objections [already made to the Magistrate Judge] de novo would compromise the judicial efficiency gained from the report and recommendation process.”).

         A. First Objection: Step Three Listing of Impairments

         Plaintiff contends that the Magistrate Judge erred with respect to the ALJ's finding as to whether his mental impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in Step Three. Specifically, he argues that the facts cited by the ALJ in support of his finding do not fairly represent the evidence on which the finding is based, and that the facts cited by the ALJ do not support his conclusion in any event. We are satisfied that the ALJ's reasoning at Step Three was adequate.

         At Step Three, the ALJ was tasked with determining whether Plaintiff's “impairment or combination of impairments is of a severity to meet or medically equal the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Part P, Appendix 1.” (R. 13 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, 416.926).)[6] The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff “does not have an impairment that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (R. 15 (citations omitted).) In particular, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not satisfy the “Paragraph B” criteria of Listings 12.02, 12.04, 12.06, 12.08, or 12.09, all of which require that the mental impairments result in at least two of the following:

marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. A marked limitation means more than moderate but less than extreme.

(Id.) Plaintiff objects to the ALJ's conclusion that he has only moderate restrictions, and not the required marked restrictions, in activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, and pace.

         The ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff does not suffer marked restrictions in activities of daily living, social functioning, or concentration, persistence, and pace as a result of his mental impairments is supported by substantial evidence in the administrative record. “A marked limitation may arise when several activities or functions are impaired, or even when only one is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is such as to interfere seriously with [a claimant's] ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis.” Ramos v. Barnhart, 513 F.Supp.2d 249, 258 n.8 (E.D. Pa. 2007) (quoting 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, § 12.00(C)). The ALJ stated that he considered the opinion of a state agency medical consultant who evaluated these issues specifically, and found that Plaintiff had only moderate restrictions. (R. 15, 147-48.) The ALJ also relied on Plaintiff's statements regarding his daily activities and level of functioning detailed in his Function Report and testimony from his August 12, 2014 hearing. (R. 15-16.) With regard to activities of daily living and social functioning, the ALJ noted that the evidence shows that Plaintiff lives with his girlfriend and their four children; does not report any problems with dressing, bathing, feeding himself, or using the toilet; prepares very simple meals; shops in stores for personal items; spends time with others talking once per week; drives; and attends doctor's appointments twice per week. (Id.; R. 283-95.) The ALJ also referred to Plaintiff's doctors' notes, which consistently stated that his self-care skills were intact; his behavior was generally appropriate; and he was cooperative, calm, relaxed, alert, oriented, and coherent. (R. 16; see, e.g., R. 351, 424, 426, 428, 458, 1023-1037.)

         With regard to concentration, persistence, and pace, the ALJ noted that the evidence shows that Plaintiff has a number of restrictions, including that he needs reminders to take care of personal needs and take his medicine; has problems paying bills; is not good at handling money; and has problems paying attention for more than five minutes and following instructions. (R. 16, 283-95.) The ALJ then noted that Plaintiff is able to prepare simple meals, count change, drive, and go to the store. (Id.) Finally, the evidence shows, and the ALJ recounted, that Plaintiff's doctors' notes consistently show that he was alert, oriented, coherent, and his memory was intact. (R. 16; see, e.g., R. 351, 424, 426, 428, 458, 1023-1037.)

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly cherry-picked the record to support his conclusion, rather than taking into account other facts that show he has marked limitations. Specifically, he argues that the ALJ did not mention that Plaintiff also reported problems caring for hair and shaving; needs reminders to take care of personal needs, groom himself, and take medications; no longer cooks because he burns food and forgets that the stove is on; is not able to pay bills, handle a ...


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