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Crouch v. Astrue

November 21, 2008

BETSY CROUCH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambrose, Chief District Judge

SYNOPSIS

Before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 8 and 14). Both parties filed briefs supporting their respective motions. (Docket No. 9 and 15). Upon analysis and consideration of each submission, and as set forth in the Opinion below, I am denying the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 8) and am granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 14).

OPINION

I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff filed this action under 42 U.S.C. §405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (hereinafter as "Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental social security income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"). On July 27, 2004, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI alleging a disability due to severe spinal disorder and depression since June 1, 2004. After Plaintiff's claim was denied, she timely requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The hearing was held on June 8, 2006, where testimony was taken from Karen S. Krull, a vocational expert, as well as the Plaintiff who was represented by counsel. The ALJ, in a decision dated July 27, 2006, found Plaintiff not to be disabled and denied her claim. On November 2, 2007 the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review, rendering the ALJ's decision final. Plaintiff filed this action seeking relief from the ALJ's decision and now before the court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

When reviewing a decision denying DIB and SSI, the District Court's role is limited to determining whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart,312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "more than mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate." Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)(quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, if the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390. A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision nor re-weigh evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706.

To be eligible for social security benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that she cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

The ALJ must utilize a five-step sequential analysis when evaluating the disability status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the medical evidence of the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404 subpt. P., appx. 1; (4) whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(a)(4).

III. DISCUSSION

The basis for Plaintiff's challenge of the ALJ's decision is that the ALJ improperly rejected the medical opinion of the Plaintiff's primary care physician and said opinion should have been given controlling weight. The Plaintiff further contends that, based on the rejection of the medical opinion, the ALJ posed an inaccurate hypothetical question to the vocational expert which did not set forth all of the plaintiff's work-related limitations. Thus, the Plaintiff's challenge seeks remand on step five (5) of the sequential analysis.

The ALJ made the following findings in support of the decision to deny Plaintiff's claim: (1) the Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since June 1, 2004; (2) the Plaintiff had lumbar degenerative disc disease and adjustment disorder with depressed mood which qualify as severe impairments; (3) the Plaintiff does not have an impairment that meets one the of the listed impairments; (4) the Plaintiff is unable to preform any past relevant work; and (5) in considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in the national economy that the Plaintiff can perform. (R. 15-20).

"A cardinal principle guiding disability eligibility determinations is that the ALJ accord treating physicians' reports great weight, especially when their opinions reflect expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time." Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000)(citations omitted). Indeed, a treating physician's opinion receives controlling weight if it is "well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(d)(2). However, the ALJ is free to reject medical source opinions that opine on issues reserved to the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(e). Additionally, the ALJ may afford a treating physicians' opinion lesser or no weight if it is not well-supported or inconsistent with other substantial evidence. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(d)(3), (4).

The central dispute in this appeal is over the interrogatory to Dr. Clifford Chen in which he gave his opinion as to the Plaintiff's functional capacity. (R. 341-47). Dr. Chen was the Plaintiff's primary care physician and he saw the Plaintiff every six to eight weeks since 2002. (R. 341). In the interrogatory Dr. Chen opined inter alia that the Plaintiff would be unable to work five days a week, or eight hours a day without breaks and that she must lay down periodically throughout the day. (R. ...


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