Mays v. Barnhart, Civil Action No. 01-5335.

Decision Date23 October 2002
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 01-5335.
Citation227 F.Supp.2d 443
PartiesCarolyn P. MAYS, v. Jo Anne B. BARNHART,<SMALL><SUP>1</SUP></SMALL> Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Eric J. Fischer, Elkins Park, PA, for Plaintiff.

Nicholas Cerulli, Social Security Administration, Phila, PA, for Movant.


BAYLSON, District Judge.

Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the decision of the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), denying her claim for disability benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34. Presently before this Court are the parties' cross motions for summary judgment. Chief United States Magistrate Judge James R. Melinson has issued a report, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C), recommending that this Court deny Plaintiff's motion and affirm the SSA's decision. Plaintiff has filed objections to the Magistrate's report. Upon careful and independent consideration of the administrative record and all filings in this Court, I will overrule Plaintiff's objections and grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

I. Background and Procedural History2

Plaintiff filed three separate applications for disability benefits. On July 22, 1998 she applied for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). (See Administrative Record (R.) at 39, 52). She then applied for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) on August 3, 1998. (R. 11). Finally, on July 26, 1999, Plaintiff applied for Widow's Insurance Benefits (WIB). (Id.). Plaintiff claimed that she had been disabled since July 30, 1994, due to tendinitis of the right shoulder, arthritis of the legs, degenerative joint disease and depression. (R. 74).

Based on her SSI application, the state disability agency found Plaintiff disabled as of August 1, 1998, and awarded SSI benefits. (Id.). However, Plaintiff was denied DIB and WIB. Plaintiff requested reconsideration, which was denied. (R. 34). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which was held on December 14, 1999. (R. 231). Plaintiff, represented by counsel, testified at the hearing. (R. 236).

On February 11, 2000, ALJ Stephen Bosch issued his written decision, denying DIB and WIB benefits, based on his finding that Plaintiff was not "disabled," as defined by the Social Security Act, at any time through the date of the ALJ's decision. (R. 17-18). The SSA's Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's unfavorable decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 4). Plaintiff then filed this action, alleging that the ALJ had made numerous legal errors and that substantial evidence did not support his decision.

II. Social Security Disability Law
A. Disability Determinations

The Social Security Act authorizes several classes of disability benefits, including DIB, see 42 U.S.C. § 423; SSI, see 42 U.S.C. § 1382; and WIB, see 42 U.S.C. § 402(e)(1)(B)(ii). Each of these entitlements requires that the applicant be under a "disability,"3 which is defined as the inability "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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 416(i)(1), 423(d)(1), 1382c(a)(3)(A) (emphasis added).

Congress has authorized the Commissioner "to make findings of fact, and decisions as to the rights" of any individual applying for disability benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(b)(1). The Social Security Regulations establish a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled.

At step one, if the claimant is presently working and the work is considered "substantial gainful activity," the claimant must be found "not disabled." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

Next, at step two, if the agency determines that the claimant does not have a "severe impairment," meaning an impairment which "significantly limits [his or her] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities," he or she will be found not-disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c).

At the third step, the Commissioner compares the claimant's impairments to those in the Listing of Impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P.App. 1. (commonly called "The Listings"). If the applicant's impairment either meets "or is equal to" a listed impairment, he or she will be found disabled, and awarded benefits, irrespective of age, education or work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(d).

Assuming the claimant's impairments do not meet or equal a Listing, the Commissioner determines, at step four, whether the claimant's condition prevents him or her "from doing past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). This finding may require an evaluation of the individual's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), as well as the "physical and mental demands" of the person's prior occupation. Id. In making this assessment, an ALJ will often rely upon the testimony of a vocational expert. If the claimant is found to be capable of returning to his or her former vocation, a finding of "not disabled" will be entered and benefits will be denied. Id.

Assuming step four is resolved in the applicant's favor, the burden then shifts, at step five, to the Administration, to establish that the claimant's impairments do not prevent him or her from doing "other work" that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(f). See Thomas v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 294 F.3d 568, 571 (3d Cir.2002) ("At Step Five, the Commissioner has the burden of demonstrating that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy."). If the applicant is determined to be incapable of adjusting to "other work," he will be found disabled; if he can adjust to other work, he will be found not-disabled.

In the present case, the ALJ's evaluation terminated at step four, when he determined that, despite her impairments, Plaintiff was capable of returning to her prior work as a receptionist. (R. 16).

B. Judicial Review of Disability Decisions

The Social Security Act provides for judicial review of any "final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security" in a disability proceeding. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The district court may enter a judgment "affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." Id. However the Commissioner's findings "as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." Id. (emphasis added). Accordingly, this Court's scope of review is "limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact." Schwartz v. Halter, 134 F.Supp.2d 640, 647 (E.D.Pa.2001).

Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a mere scintilla" or "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). The substantial evidence standard "is deferential and includes deference to inferences drawn from the facts if they, in turn, are supported by substantial evidence." Schaudeck v. Commissioner of S.S.A., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir.1999).

III. Discussion

In ruling on objections to the Report and Recommendation (R & R) of a United States Magistrate Judge, this Court reviews de novo only "those portions" of the R & R "to which objection is made." 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). See also Fed.R.Civ.P. 72. Plaintiff raises two objections to Chief Magistrate Judge Melinson's R & R, which this Court will address in turn.4

A. First Objection

Plaintiff first contends that the Magistrate improperly applied a "total disability" standard in reviewing the ALJ's determination. See Plaintiff's Written Objections ("Obj.") at 5. Plaintiff argues that the R & R "repeatedly — and mistakenly — assumes that Ms. Mays must show `total disability' in order to justify a finding in her favor." Id. Upon review of the R & R and the record, this Court concludes that Plaintiff's first objection amounts to little more than semantics.

As explained above, disability under the Social Security Act requires proof that one is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). Under this strict standard, many claimants are properly denied disability benefits, though they have one or more "severe" impairments. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). If, despite serious physical or mental limitations, a claimant still can perform his former occupation or other work existing in the national economy, he will not be found disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e)-(f).

In October 1998, to assist the Commissioner in making a disability determination, Emil Sfedu, M.D., performed a consultative examination on Plaintiff. (R. 110). Dr. Sfedu's findings would suggest that Plaintiff was capable of performing, at most, "sedentary" work.5 See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a). Considering Dr. Sfedu's report and all other evidence submitted, the ALJ found that, despite her "severe right shoulder impingement syndrome," Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform "light" exertion work.6 (R. 17). In his R & R, the Magistrate Judge noted that "Dr. Sfedu's examination notes do not support a finding of total disability." R & R at 13.

The phrase "total disability" was obviously intended by the Magistrate to mean disability under the Social Security Act's strict standards. It is not uncommon for courts to use the term "total" as a modifier, simply to reflect the legal, as opposed to layman's, definition of "disability." See, e.g., Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 48 (3d Cir.1994) ("The ALJ must review all the medical...

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