ALTOMARE v. COLVIN
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER THAT THE CLERK OF COURT IS DIRECTED THIS ACTION FROM CIVIL SUSPENSE. PLAINTIFF'S OBJECTIONS ARE OVERRULED FOR THE REASONS SET FORTH IN THE R&R, AND THE R&R IS APPROVED AND ADOPTED; ETC.. SIGNED BY HONORABLE CYNTHIA M. RUFE ON 8/31/15. 9/1/15 ENTERED AND E-MAILED.(jl, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
CIVIL ACTION NO. 13-7297
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner
of the Social Security Administration,
August 31, 2015
Plaintiff Robert Altomare brings this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial
review of the final decision of the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration,
Carolyn W. Colvin (“Commissioner”), who denied his application for Supplemental Security
Benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Defendant argues that the
determination of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was supported by substantial evidence
and should be upheld. This Court referred the matter to Chief Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra
Moore Wells for a Report and Recommendation (“R & R”). 1 In an R & R submitted on April 17,
2015, Magistrate Judge Wells recommended that Plaintiff’s Request for Review be denied and
Judgment be entered in favor of Defendant and against Plaintiff. Plaintiff timely filed objections,
all of which addressed findings regarding Plaintiff’s physical conditions and exertional
limitations. The Court will overrule the objections Plaintiff raised, as the Court finds the R & R
persuasive on the issues raised in the objections. However, the Court does not approve and adopt
See Local Rule of Civil Procedure 72.1.I(a); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B).
the R & R in full, and will remand the case for further agency proceedings, for the reasons set
On August 19, 2010, Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits, alleging disability since August
2007, based upon depression, residual sympathetic dystrophy, diverticulitis, hernia, arthritis, high
cholesterol, and knee and back injuries and pain. A hearing was held before an ALJ on October
4, 2011. On December 7, 2011, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiff’s claim for
The ALJ found that Plaintiff was severely impaired by degenerative disc disease of the
lumbar spine and cervical spine, history of right knee injury with pain, and reflex sympathetic
dystrophy at Step 2 of the sequential evaluation process, but found that these impairments did not
meet or equal a listing at Step 3. 2 The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s depression did not constitute a
severe impairment at Step 2, but in so doing, applied the listing criteria from Step 3. The ALJ
then found that Plaintiff has the residual functional capacity to perform a subset of light work, as
In order to qualify for benefits, a person must be found to have a disability, defined as an “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. §§ 423(d)(1)(A); see also Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 23 (2003). An ALJ
reviewing an application for disability benefits must employ the five-step process established in the Social Security
Regulations (“the Regulations”) to determine whether a disability exists. Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259, 262-63 (3d
Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ must determine whether the applicant is engaged in
Asubstantial gainful activity;@ if she is, the claim is denied. If the applicant is not engaged in substantial gainful
activity, the ALJ must determine at step two whether the applicant suffers from a severe, medically determinable
impairment which significantly limits her ability to work. If the applicant has such an impairment, the ALJ must
determine at step three whether the impairment found meets the criteria for any of the impairments conclusively
presumed to be disabilities, which are listed in Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (Athe Listings@), or has an
equivalently debilitating medical condition. If the applicant has a severe impairment that does not meet or equal an
impairment in the Listings, the ALJ must determine at step four whether the applicant has the Residual Functioning
Capacity (ARFC@) to perform her former relevant work. If the applicant does not have the RFC to perform her
previous work, the Commissioner must establish at step five that the applicant has the RFC to perform other work
that exists in the national economy, considering her age, education and work experience. At this fifth step, if the
Commissioner cannot demonstrate that the applicant has the RFC to perform other existing work, the ALJ must find
the applicant to be disabled.
defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), but could not perform his past relevant work. Given Plaintiff’s
age (closely approaching advanced age), educational background (9th grade), work experience
(unskilled), literacy level (minimal), and exertional limitations (light work with some additional
limitations), the ALJ found that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national
economy that Plaintiff can perform, and denied his claim for benefits.
The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review of the ALJ’s decision. The
Plaintiff then appealed to this Court, which referred the case to Magistrate Judge Wells for an R
Standard of Review
The agency’s legal conclusions are subject to de novo review. 3 However, the agency’s
findings of fact will not be disturbed if they are supported by substantial evidence. 4 The Court
will generally defer to the ALJ’s findings, and affirm the ALJ’s findings of fact if they are
supported by “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion,” 5 even if the Court, acting de novo, would have reached a different conclusion than
the ALJ. 6
When reviewing a magistrate judge’s R & R regarding an ALJ’s decision, the Court
conducts a de novo review of any portion of the R & R to which a proper objection was made. 7
However, when no objection is made to an R & R or some a portion of an R & R, the court may
Poulos v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d Cir. 2007).
Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988).
Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986).
Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b).
accept the report and recommendation if the court is satisfied that there is no clear error on the
face of the record. 8
The R & R concluded that the following findings by the ALJ were supported by
substantial evidence: 1) that Plaintiff’s right knee impairment did not meet or equal the
requirements of Listed Impairment 1.02; and 2) that Plaintiff was capable of performing a subset
of “light” occupations despite his exertional limitations. In so doing, the R & R addressed
Plaintiff’s contention that the ALJ improperly assessed his RFC, failed to address the opinions of
two treating physicians, and mischaracterized the opinions of a third treating physician. The R &
R also concluded that the ALJ did not err in failing to apply Medical Vocational Rule 201.09,
upon finding that Plaintiff was capable of a number of light occupations. 9 Finally, the R & R
found that the ALJ’s credibility determinations were supported by substantial record evidence.
In his Objections, Plaintiff argued that the R & R erred in concluding: 1) that the ALJ’s
finding that Plaintiff can engage in light duty work was supported by substantial evidence
regarding his residual functional capacity; 2) that the ALJ adequately considered the medical
evidence from Plaintiff’s treating physicians; 3) that the ALJ’s findings regarding Plaintiff’s
credibility were supported by substantial record evidence. The Court overrules Plaintiff’s
Objections to the R & R, for the reasons set forth in the R & R.
Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b), Advisory Committee Notes: 1983 Edition.
As the R & R correctly notes, Medical Vocational Rule 201.09 applies to claimants limited to sedentary
The R & R also concluded that the ALJ’s findings regarding Plaintiff’s mental illness and
non-exertional limitations were supported by substantial evidence. The R & R reasoned that “the
ALJ did not reversibly err by finding that Plaintiff’s depression was not severe, because,
inasmuch as the ALJ found that Plaintiff had other severe impairments, she continued her
analysis beyond the second step of the sequential evaluation process. . . Further, the ALJ stated
that she was including any limitations from Plaintiff’s non-severe depression in her assessment
of Plaintiff’s RFC.” 10 Although Plaintiff did not pose an objection on this issue, upon this
Court’s careful, independent review of the record, the Court finds that the ALJ applied the wrong
standard in ruling that Plaintiff’s mental illness was not severe at Step 2, and that this clear error
was not remedied at a later point in the sequential evaluation process.
First, the Court finds legal error in the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s depression was
not severe at Step 2. At Step 2 of the sequential evaluation process, an impairment is considered
“not severe” only if it is “a slight abnormality (or combination of slight abnormalities) that has
no more than a minimal effect on the ability to do basic work activities.” 11 The ALJ’s opinion
improperly applied the “Listing of Impairments” criteria 12 in determining whether Plaintiff’s
depression was severe. The Listing of Impairments is properly consulted at Step 3, to determine
whether the claimed impairments are sufficiently severe to meet (or equal) the criteria set forth in
the appropriate Listing. It is not a proper basis for a finding of not-disabled at Step 2. Thus, in
finding Plaintiff’s mental health conditions were “not severe” at Step 2, the ALJ applied the
wrong legal standard.
R & R at 8.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1521; Social Security Rulings 85-28 and 96-3p.
20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, App’x 1, Listing 12.00C.
Second, the Court does not agree with the R & R’s conclusion that the ALJ’s RFC
assessment properly considered any non-exertional limitations from Plaintiff’s depression.
Although the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had received treatment for depression for two years
beginning in 2001, treatment for anger management from 2001-2005, and a five-day inpatient
hospitalization with a diagnosis of major depression, recurrent, with psychotic symptoms in
2011, 13 the ALJ’s discussion of his RFC included no discussion of the substance of Plaintiff’s
psychological records or documented symptoms. 14 Thus, Court cannot agree with the R & R’s
conclusion that “the ALJ properly considered the combined effects of all of Plaintiff’s
impairments, including his non-severe depression.” 15 Because the Court has determined that the
ALJ’s ruling as to the severity of Plaintiff’s depression and the ALJ’s failure to evaluate whether
Plaintiff’s psychiatric records documented any functional limitations associated with his mental
illness constitute clear error, the Court will not approve and adopt the R & R with regard to these
Upon exercising its independent review of the record, the Court has determined that the
ALJ applied an incorrect legal standard in finding that Plaintiff’s depression was not severe at
Step 2, and that this error was not remedied by her assessment of Plaintiff’s functional
Other medical records indicate that depression was an ongoing issue for Plaintiff. For example, a medical
record dated 5/29/2009 lists depression on Mr. Altomare’s “Chronic Problem List.” R. at 283.
The psychiatric assessment conducted at First Hospital Wyoming Valley documented Plaintiff’s mental
health treatment, noting a two month period of increased anxiety and depression, and noting the presence of serious
symptoms for the preceding twenty years. He was discharged to outpatient treatment in a partial hospitalization
program, after a five day inpatient stay, with a prescription for Seroquel to treat hallucinations, preoccupations,
anxiety, and decreased sleep. The assessment and discharge summary from Plaintiff’s inpatient hospitalization are
the only substantive mental health records which are part of the record. R. at 388-395. A state agency psychologist
completed a Psychiatric Review form, checking the box for “no medically determinable mental impairment,” but he
did not personally assess Plaintiff and apparently did not review any of Plaintiff’s mental health treatment records
before forming his opinion. R. at 309-21.
R & R at 9.
limitations later in the sequential evaluation process. Therefore, the Court will remand the case
for further consideration of whether Plaintiff’s mental illness is severe and whether he suffers
any non-exertional limitations on his ability to work.
An appropriate Order follows.
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