United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
July 1, 2004.
JO ANNE B. BARNHART, Commissioner of Social Security.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: CHARLES WEINER, Senior District Judge
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Thomas Smith ("Smith") seeks judicial review under
42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) of the decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security, who found that plaintiff was not entitled to
Social Security Income ("SSI") under title XVI of the Social
Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 1381-1383f. Presently
before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. For the reasons which follow, the motion of the
defendant will be denied, the motion of the plaintiff will be
granted and the case will be remanded for further proceedings.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
When reviewing a denial of a claimant's application for SSI, a
reviewing court applies the "substantial evidence" standard.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405 (g); Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113 (3d Cir. 2002).
"Substantial evidence is `more than a mere scintilla. It means
such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate'." Ventura v. Shala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)
(quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). This
court is not "empowered to weigh the evidence or substitute its
conclusions for those of the fact-finder." Williams v.
Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992).
Smith protectively filed an application for SSI on October 17,
2000, alleging disability since December 10, 1992 due to a
work-related injury which, he argues, resulted in a permanently
disabling back injury. R-12. After his application was initially
denied, Smith requested and was granted a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on February 27, 2003. Id.
After reviewing the evidence and hearing testimony from Smith and
a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Smith was not
eligible for SSI. Specifically, the ALJ found that the plaintiff
suffers from severe impairments of his lower back and left hip
but that he did not have an impairment listed in, or medically
equal to one listed in, Appendix P, Subpart P, regulations No. 4.
R. 19. The ALJ also found that although plaintiff could not
perform his past work as a laborer, Smith retained the residual
functional capacity to perform "light" work activity with the following
additional restrictions: "he should not use his left foot for
repetitive movements such as operation foot controls or pushing
and pulling; he can perform no more than occasional climbing,
balancing, bending, kneeling, crouching, or crawling; he can
perform simple grasping with his dominant left hand no more than
occasionally, but can use both hands for fine manipulation; he
should avoid concentrated (frequent) exposure to temperature
extremes, wetness, humidity, vibration, and hazards such as
moving machinery and unprotected heights; and he is limited to
simple, routine tasks." R-20.
At his hearing before the ALJ, Smith testified that he "can
stand for about 10 minutes" before it gets "really, really,
really bad." R-65. Smith also testified that he could sit for
"[m]aybe 10 minute[s] at the most and three minute[s]
sometime[s]." Id. The ALJ noted for the record that Smith
alternated between sitting and standing during the course of the
Smith also testified that Dr. L. Wolf, a doctor with Jacobson
Tabby Associates,*fn1 was his treating physician. On
February 23, 2000, Dr. Wolf completed a Department of Public Welfare ("DPW") form on which he checked a
box, indicating that Smith was permanently disabled. His primary
diagnosis was that Smith suffered from left side arthritis, disc
disease, left hip disease. His secondary diagnosis noted
On October 4, 2000, Dr. Wolf completed a second DPW form, again
indicating that Smith was permanently disabled. His primary
diagnosis indicated that Smith suffered from left side
degenerative joint disease and severe lower back pain. Secondary
diagnosis presented radicular pain as well as an altered unstable
On July 31, 2001, Smith underwent an x-ray which presented,
among other things, marked degenerative disc disease at L4-5.
In his motion for summary judgment, Smith argues, inter alia,
that the ALJ erred by not affording substantial weight to his
treating physician's opinion that Smith was permanently disabled.
Smith also argues that the ALJ mistook or misinterpreted the
x-ray from July 31, 2001 that showed marked degenerative disc
disease at L4-5, R-270, which corroborated the treating
physician's opinion that Smith was permanently disabled. DISCUSSION
A treating physician's opinion will be given controlling weight
when it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the
other substantial evidence in [the] case record."
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2). An ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion
outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence, but
may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less weight
depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are
provided." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999).
"Form reports in which a physicians's obligation is only to check
a box or fill in a blank are weak evidence at best . . . where
these so-called reports [residual functional capacity reports]
are unaccompanied by thorough written reports, their reliability
is suspect." Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1065 (3rd Cir.
1993) (quoting Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 585 (3rd Cir.
1986)) (internal quotations omitted).
Dr. Wolf was plaintiff's treating physician. Accordingly, upon
a showing that his opinions were "well-supported by medically
acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is
not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the]
case record," Dr. Wolf's assessment that plaintiff was
permanently disabled due to his left degenerative disc disease should have
been given controlling weight.
However, the ALJ assigned little weight to Dr. Wolf's
conclusions because "they are not explained and are not supported
by the medical evidence." R. 18. The ALJ gave no further
explanation as to why he was not recognizing Dr. Wolf's opinion
It is well settled that an ALJ "cannot reject evidence for no
reason or for the wrong reason . . . [and that] an explanation
from the ALJ of the reason why probative evidence has been
rejected is required so that a reviewing court can determine
whether the reasons for rejection were improper." Cotter v.
Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706-07 (3rd Cir. 1981) (internal citations
omitted). Failure to do so results in ALJ determinations being
set aside. See, e.g., Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3rd Cir. 2000) ("The ALJ did err by
reason of his failure to consider and explain his reasons for
discounting all of the pertinent evidence before him in making
his residual functional capacity determination. In making a
residual functional capacity determination, the ALJ must consider
all evidence before him." (citing Plummer v. Apfel,
186 F.3d 422 (3rd Cir. 1999) (emphasis added); Doak v. Heckler,
790 F.2d 26, 29 (3d Cir. 1986).
In Cotter, our Court of Appeals reversed a district court's
granting of summary judgment in favor of the Social Security Administration
after the ALJ denied a claimant's application without properly
addressing medical evidence supporting his claim. Reiterating the
long-held rule that an ALJ's failure to adequately address
evidence at hand precludes meaningful judicial review, the court
To state the issue simplistically but clearly, if the
record contained the evidence of six medical experts,
one of whom supported the claimant and five of whom
did not, it would be of little assistance to our
review function were the ALJ merely to state that
s/he credited the one supporting expert because that
evidence adequately demonstrated disability, but
failed to either mention or explain why the evidence
of the other five experts was rejected. In that
instance, we would not know whether the evidence of
the five experts was rejected because the ALJ found
it lacking in credibility, irrelevant, or marred by
some other defect.
Kotter, 642 F.2d 700
, 706 (3rd Cir. 1981). Accordingly, the
court vacated and remanded to the agency since "[t]he ALJ's
failure to explain his implicit rejection of [the] evidence or
even to acknowledge its presence was error." Id. at 707. See
also Fargnoli v. Halter, 247 F.3d 34
, 42 (3rd Cir. 2001)
("Where there is conflicting probative evidence in the record, we
recognize a particularly acute need for an explanation of the
reasoning behind the ALJ's conclusions, and will vacate or remand
a case where such an explanation is not provided.") (quoting
In denying Smith's application for SSI, the ALJ relied upon his
interpretation of the evidence presented, and found that "[t]here
is very little objective evidence supporting his allegations of disabling back
and hip pain, and there are no objective tests showing a disc
herniation, just mild degenerative changes" R-16. The "mild
degenerative change" is of particular note since it was the ALJ's
only reference to the July 31, 2001 x-ray which revealed,
inter alia, the presence of "marked degenerative disc disease
at L4-5." R-270 (emphasis added). An x-ray revealing marked
degenerative disc disease may support the treating physician's
opinion that plaintiff was permanently disabled. However, the ALJ
did not explain his reasoning for rejecting this medical evidence
in denying Smith's application.
Noting that the "severity of the pain [Smith] describes is not
supported by the objective medical evidence," R 16-17, the ALJ
found Smith's testimony to be "less than fully credible in that
it exaggerates the extent to which his impairments limit his
physical and mental capabilities." R-19. Since the ALJ's
determination failed to incorporate the July 2001 x-ray, it
cannot be said that the ALJ's credibility determination
surrounding Smith's subjective complaints was based on
substantial evidence. See Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 362
(3rd Cir. 1999) ("Once an ALJ concludes that a medical impairment
that could reasonably cause the alleged symptoms exists, he or
she must evaluate the intensity and persistence of the pain or
symptom, and the extent to which it affects the individual's
ability to work."); Carter v. R.R. Ret. Bd., 834 F.2d 62, 65 (3rd Cir. 1987) ("While such
complaints are to be considered seriously even when not fully
corroborated by objective medical evidence, they must be accorded
great weight when reasonably supported by medical evidence. In
the latter situation, subjective complaints should not be
disregarded absent contrary medical evidence.") (internal
citations and quotations omitted). See also Mason v.
Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058 (3rd Cir. 1993) (applying Carter).
Since the ALJ's failure to properly explain his reasons for
rejecting the July 31, 2001 x-ray showing "marked degenerative
disc disease at L4-5" implicates the ALJ's reasoning for not
affording the opinion of Smith's treating physician full weight
as well as the ALJ's determination that Smith's subjective
complaints were not adequately supported by objective medical
evidence to corroborate its severity, the court will remand the
case to allow the ALJ to properly address the x-ray. ORDER
The motion of the defendant for summary judgment is DENIED.
The motion of the plaintiff for summary judgment is GRANTED.
Judgment is ENTERED in favor of the plaintiff and against the
The case is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further
proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
IT IS SO ORDERED.