United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
RICHARD P. CONABOY, District Judge.
Here we consider Plaintiff's appeal from the Commissioner's denial of Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). (Doc. 1.) The Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who evaluated the claim found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform medium exertional work with certain limitations, that jobs existed which he could perform, and, therefore, Plaintiff was not under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from the alleged onset date of April 7, 2009, through the date of the decision, January 10, 2011. (R. 12, 16-17.) With this action, Plaintiff argues that the determination of the Social Security Administration is error for three reasons: 1) the ALJ gave "little weight" to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating rheumatologist; 2) the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform medium exertional work; and 3) the ALJ's credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 6 at 9.)
For the reasons discussed below, we conclude Plaintiff's appeal is properly denied.
On June 4, 2009, Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Title II Disability Insurance benefits. ( See R. 9.) Plaintiff claimed disability beginning on April 7, 2009. ( Id. ) Plaintiff listed the illnesses, injuries, or conditions that limited his ability to work as "Churg strauss[, ] stroke[, ] colitis[, ] partial complex seizures." (R. 108.) He added that his "speech has been affected by my stroke. It was told not to drive for a living." (R. 108.) Plaintiff had past work as a truck driver and traffic flagger. (R. 40-41, 109.)
The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's application by a decision issued on October 13, 2009. (R. 70-74.) On October 27, 2009, Plaintiff filed a timely Request for Hearing before an Administrative Law Judge. (R. 85-86.) On November 30, 2010, ALJ Michele Stolls held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. 21-44.) Plaintiff was represented by counsel at the hearing. (R. 21.)
At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was 46 years old and lived with his wife and two daughters, ages four and five. (R. 27.) He was not working. ( Id. ) Plaintiff last worked on April 7, 2009, the day he had a stroke. (R. 31-32.) He remained insured through December 31, 2013. (R. 9.) In response to the ALJ's questions about why he was unable to work, Plaintiff responded that he gets fatigued if he stands for two to three hours, he has a muscle issue in his back, his walking and sitting are limited, and he has weakness in his hands. (R. 34-35.) Plaintiff also reported that one of his medications, Trileptal, makes him "a little drowsy from time to time." (R. 37.) Upon questioning by his attorney about symptoms related to colitis, Plaintiff responded that the condition causes him to make frequent trips to the bathroom and also can cause extreme pain and urgency. (R. 37.)
Following Plaintiff's testimony, the ALJ asked the VE whether there were jobs for a hypothetical claimant with the same age, education and work experience as Plaintiff with the residual functional capacity to perform work that is no more than medium exertional level but he must avoid occupations that require climbing on ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (R. 42.) The ALJ added that the hypothetical claimant must also avoid concentrated prolonged exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, chemical irritants, environments with poor ventilation, temperature extremes, extreme dampness and humidity. ( Id. ) The ALJ also limited the hypothetical claimant to occupations that do not require exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. ( Id. ) After confirming that such a claimant could not perform Plaintiff's past work, the VE identified several other positions. (R. 42.) The ALJ then added the following limitations: "Limited to occupations requiring no more than simple, routine tasks not performed in a fast-paced production environment, involving only simple work-related decisions, and in general, relatively few workplace changes and also can be performed wearing an incontinence protection pad." (R. 43.) The VE responded the same jobs would be available. ( Id. ) When the limitation was added that the individual "would have to be off task more than 30 percent of the workday due to chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating and unpredictable need to use the bathroom, " the VE responded there would be no jobs for such a person. (R. 43.)
By decision of January 10, 2011, ALJ Stolls found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (R. 17.) After finding Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "Churg Strauss vasculitis status post cerebral vascular accident, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease" (R. 11) and that none of these impairments alone or in combination met or equaled a listed impairment (R. 12), she found Plaintiff
has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c). The claimant must avoid occupations that require climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. The claimant must avoid concentrated prolonged exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, chemical irritants, environments with poor ventilation, temperature extremes[, ] extreme dampness and humidity. The claimant is limited to occupations that do not require exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights.
Because the ALJ determined that jobs exist in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform (R. 16-17), she concluded that Plaintiff had not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act from April 7, 2009, through the date of her decision, January 10, 2011. (R. 17.)
Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision, and on June 22, 2012, the Appeals Council issued a notice denying Plaintiff's request. (R. 1.) Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff filed this action on August 21, 2012. (Doc. 1.) He filed his brief in support of the appeal on December 4, 2012. (Doc. 86.) Commissioner Astrue filed his opposition brief on February 3, 2013. (Doc. 7.) Plaintiff filed a reply brief on January 11, 2013. (Doc. 8.) Therefore, this matter is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.
A. Relevant Authority
The Commissioner is required to use a five-step analysis to determine whether a claimant is disabled. It is necessary for the Commissioner to ascertain: 1) whether the applicant is engaged in a substantial activity; 2) whether the applicant is severely impaired; 3) whether the impairment matches or is equal to the requirements of one of the listed impairments, whereby he qualifies for benefits without further inquiry; 4) whether the claimant can perform his past work; 5) whether the claimant's impairment together with his age, education, and past work experiences preclude him from doing any other sort of work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(b)-(g), 416.920(b)-(g); see Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 110 S.Ct. 885, 888-89 (1990).
The disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The initial burden rests with the claimant to demonstrate that he or she is unable to engage in his or her past relevant work. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Mason v. Shalala, 993 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993).
This Court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). A reviewing court is "bound by the ALJ's findings of fact if they are supported by substantial evidence in the record." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). Substantial evidence means "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427 (quoting Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995)); see also Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 359 (3d Cir. 2011). Therefore, we will not set aside the Commissioner's final decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if we would have reached different factual conclusions. Hartranft, 181 F.3d at 360 ( citing Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986); 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive..."). "However, even if the Secretary's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, [a court] may review whether the Secretary, in making his findings, applied the correct legal standards to the facts presented." Friedberg v. Schweiker, 721 F.2d 445, 447 (3d Cir. 1983) (internal quotation omitted). An ALJ's decision can only be reviewed by a court based on the evidence that was before the ALJ at the time he or she made his or her decision. Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 593 (3d Cir. 2001).
At the outset of our review of whether the ALJ has met the substantial evidence standard regarding the matters at issue here, we note the Third Circuit has repeatedly emphasized the special nature of proceedings for disability benefits. See Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). These proceedings are not strictly adversarial, but rather the Social Security Administration provides an applicant with assistance to prove his claim. Id. "These proceedings are extremely important to the claimants, who are in real need in most instances and who claim not charity but that which is rightfully due as provided for in Chapter 7, Subchapter II, of the Social Security Act." Hess v. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, 497 F.2d 837, 840 (3d Cir. 1974). As such, the agency must take extra care in developing an administrative record and in explicitly weighing all evidence. Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Further, the court in Dobrowolsky noted "the cases demonstrate that, consistent with the legislative purpose, courts have mandated that leniency be shown in establishing the claimant's disability, and that the Secretary's responsibility to rebut it be strictly construed." Id.
Finally, the Third Circuit has recognized that it is necessary for the Secretary to analyze all evidence. If he has not done so and has not sufficiently explained the weight he has given to all probative exhibits, "to say that his decision is supported by substantial evidence approaches an abdication of the court's duty to scrutinize the record as a whole to determine whether the conclusions reached are rational." Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 407. In Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981), the Circuit Court clarified that the ALJ must not only state the evidence considered which supports the result but also indicate what evidence was rejected. "Since it is apparent that the ALJ cannot reject evidence for no reason or the wrong reason, 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." Id. at 706-07. However, the ALJ need not undertake an exhaustive discussion of all the evidence. See, e.g., Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 2000). "There is no requirement that the ALJ discuss in its opinion every tidbit of evidence included in the record." Hur v. Barnhart, 94 F.Appx. 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004). Only where the ALJ rejects conflicting probative evidence must he fully explain his reasons for doing so. See, e.g., Walker v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 61 F.Appx. 787, 788-89 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). Further, the ALJ does not need to use particular language or adhere to a particular format in conducting his analysis. Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 505 (3d Cir. 2004). "[W]here [a reviewing court] can determine that there is substantial evidence supporting the Commissioner's decision, ... the Cotter doctrine is not implicated." Hernandez v. Commissioner of Social Security, 89 Fed.App'x 771, 774 (3d Cir. 2004) (not precedential).
B. Plaintiff's Alleged Errors
As set out above, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred on three bases: 1) the ALJ gave "little weight" to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating rheumatologist, Miroslawa Nowak, M.D.; 2) the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform medium exertional work; and 3) the ALJ's credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence. (Doc. 6 at 9.)
1. Treating Physician's Opinion
Plaintiff first contends the ALJ erred in giving "little weight" to Dr. Nowak's opinion. (Doc. 8 at 6-10.) We disagree that the ALJ's ...