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Weimer v. Astrue

March 5, 2009

RONALD G. WEIMER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Ronald G. Weimer, brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c) for judicial review of the final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"), which denied his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-403; 1381-1383(f).

II. Background

A. Facts

Plaintiff was born on October 1, 1967, and was thirty-six years old at the time of his alleged onset date of disability. He graduated from high school and had past work experience as a carpenter's helper, retail manager, construction laborer, manager of a cleaning service, mover, and television assembler.

Plaintiff alleges disability as of July 16, 2004, due to degenerative joint disease of the knee and various physical and mental afflictions caused by an alcohol-induced coma. The record reflects that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful work activity since July 16, 2004.

B. Procedural History

Plaintiff filed an application for SSI/DIB on August 31, 2004, in which he claimed total disability since July 16, 2004. An administrative hearing was held on January 30, 2006, before Administrative Law Judge Douglas W. Abruzzo ("ALJ"). Plaintiff was represented by counsel and testified at the hearing. Melanie Weimer, Plaintiff's wife, and Eugene E. Hoffman, an impartial vocational expert, also testified at the hearing.

On April 13, 2006, the ALJ rendered an unfavorable decision to Plaintiff in which he found that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform a wide range of medium exertional activity which did not require the use of ladders, ropes or scaffolds and no more than occasional pushing and pulling with the lower extremities. The ALJ found that these limitations would not prevent Plaintiff from performing several of his past jobs and, therefore, determined that Plaintiff was not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act. The decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner on February 22, 2008, when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the decision.

On July 1, 2008, Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this Court in which he seeks judicial review of the decision of the ALJ. The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in (1) his credibility determination; (2) his treatment of the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and consultative physicians; (3) his determination that Plaintiff did not have a severe impairment; (4) his determination that Plaintiff did not have an impairment that meets or equals a listed impairment; and (5) his characterization of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). The Commissioner contends that the decision of the ALJ should be affirmed as it is supported by substantial evidence. The Court agrees with the Commissioner and will, therefore, grant the motion for summary judgment filed by the Commissioner and deny the motion for summary judgment filed by Plaintiff.

III. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The Act limits judicial review of disability claims to the Commissioner's final decision.

42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)/1383(c)(3). If the Commissioner's finding is supported by substantial evidence, it is conclusive and must be affirmed by the Court. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Schaudeck v. Comm'n of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). The Supreme Court has defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). It consists of more than a scintilla of evidence, but less than a preponderance. Stunkard v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 841 F.2d 57, 59 (3d Cir. 1988).

When resolving the issue of whether an adult claimant is or is not disabled, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step sequential evaluation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 (1995). This process requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to his or her past relevant work, and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work. See 42 U.S.C . § 404.1520; Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Security, 220 F.3d 112, 118-19 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Plummer v. Apfel, 186, F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999)).

To qualify for disability benefits under the Act, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some "medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period." Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775, 777 (3d Cir. 1987); 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(1) (1982). This may be done in two ways:

(1) by introducing medical evidence that the claimant is disabled per se because he or she suffers from one or more of a number of serious impairments delineated in 20 C.F.R. Regulations No. 4, Subpt. P, Appendix 1. See Heckler v. Campbell, 461 U.S. 458 (1983); Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; or,

(2) in the event that claimant suffers from a less severe impairment, by demonstrating that he or she is nevertheless unable to engage in "any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . ." Campbell, 461 U.S. at 461 (citing 42 U.S.C. § 423 (d)(2)(A)).

In order to prove disability under the second method, a claimant must first demonstrate the existence of a medically determinable disability that precludes plaintiff from returning to his or her former job. Stunkard, 841 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777. Once it is shown that claimant is unable to resume his or her previous employment, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that, given claimant's mental or physical limitations, age, education and work experience, he or she is able to perform substantial gainful activity in jobs available in the national economy. Stunkard, 842 F.2d at 59; Kangas, 823 F.2d at 777; Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Rossi v. Califano, 602 F.2d 55, 57 (3d Cir. 1979).

Where a claimant has multiple impairments which may not individually reach the level of severity necessary to qualify any one impairment for Listed Impairment status, the Commissioner nevertheless must consider all of the impairments in combination to determine whether, collectively, they meet or equal the severity of a Listed Impairment. Bailey v. Sullivan, 885 F.2d 52 (3d Cir. 1989) ("in determining an individual's eligibility for benefits, the Secretary shall consider the combined effect of all of the individual's impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of such severity.")

In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act at the fourth step of the sequential evaluation process. In making this determination, the ALJ concluded that (1) Plaintiff and his wife were not credible witnesses; (2) the opinions of Plaintiff's treating and examining medical physicians were contrary to objective medical evidence contained in the record; (3) Plaintiff had degenerative joint disease of the knees, which was severe, but any additional impairments that Plaintiff had did not have more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform work-related activities and were, therefore, not severe; (4) the medical evidence of record did not contain the objective signs, symptoms, or findings of functional limitations necessary to meet or equal the severity of a listed impairment; and (5) Plaintiff had the RFC to perform past relevant work.

B. Discussion

As set forth in the Act and applicable case law, this Court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3rd Cir. 1986), cert. denied, 482 U.S. 905 (1987). The Court must simply review the findings and conclusions of the ALJ to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Schaudeck v. Comm'n of Soc. Sec. Admin., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999).

1. The ALJ Properly Determined that Both Plaintiff and His Wife Were Not Credible Witnesses

A plaintiff's subjective opinion about his own disability is entitled to credence if it is supported by the medical record. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(5)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(H)(I). See Taybron v. Harris, 667 F.2d 412, 415 n. 5 (3d Cir. 1981). It is the responsibility of the ALJ to determine the credibility of a plaintiff's statements about his or her own disability and to make findings on credibility. See Dobrolowsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 409 (3rd Cir. 1979); see also Kephart v. Richardson, 505 F.2d 1089 (3rd Cir. 1974).

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly concluded that he and his wife were not credible witnesses. The record reflects, however, that the ALJ made a thorough evaluation of Plaintiff's credibility and also assessed the credibility of ...


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