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Heidi Guido v. Michael J. Astrue

June 26, 2012

HEIDI GUIDO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, DEFENDANT.



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

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT SYNOPSIS

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 11). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 9 and 12). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 11) and denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 8).

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act").*fn1 In October, 2008, Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI, alleging that since January 1, 2001, she had been disabled due to bipolar disorder, manic depression, and anxiety. (R. 11, 108-111). The state agency denied her claim initially, and she requested an administrative hearing. (R. 40-43, 58-62, 63-64). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Ronald A. Marks held a hearing on May 4, 2010, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 22-36). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. (R. 33-36). In a decision dated May 21, 2010, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. 9-17). After exhausting all of her administrative remedies thereafter, Plaintiff filed this action.

The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 11). The issues are now ripe for my review.

II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as "more than a 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) (quotingRichardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F. Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). 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, the plaintiff 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. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. 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; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, 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, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.

A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

B. WHETHER THE ALJ ERRED IN FAILING TO GIVE THE APPROPRIATE WEIGHT TO CERTAIN MEDICAL EVIDENCE

Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ improperly assigned the most weight to the opinions of (1) a consultative examination report by Daniel G. Christo, D.O. and (2) a mental residual functional capacity assessment and Psychiatric Review Technique Form completed by a non-examining State Agency psychologist, John Vigna, Ph.D. Pl.'s Br. (Docket No. 9) at 4-7. Specifically, Plaintiff argues that although Dr. Christo makes a few remarks about Plaintiff's mental health status,*fn2 he is not a trained specialist in mental health impairments and was retained to perform a physical examination of Plaintiff, not to assess her mental health. Id. at 6. With respect to Dr. Vigna, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should not have afforded the report great weight because Dr. Vigna did not personally examine Plaintiff and because he based his assessment on Plaintiff's medical records from a year before her actual hearing. Id. at 6-7.*fn3 Plaintiff also contends that the opinions are inconsistent with her treatment records from the Staunton Clinic or with the report of consultative mental health examiner Dr. Newman. Id. at 7.

Plaintiff's argument is without merit. As an initial matter, Plaintiff bases much of her argument on a misreading of the ALJ's opinion. On ...


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