United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 19 and 23). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 20 and 24). 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 (ECF No. 23) and denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 19).
Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on February 28, 2006, alleging he had been disabled since December 1, 2004. (ECF Nos. 17, pp. 106, 117). The Appeals Counsel remanded the case after an initial decision denying Plaintiff's applications. (ECF No. 17, pp. 339-341). On remand, a new Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Douglas Cohen, held a supplemental hearing on July 1, 2010. (ECF No. 17, pp. 562-609). On August 31, 2010, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 17, pp. 43-55). After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.
The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 19 and 23). The issues are now ripe for 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), quoting Richardson 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 he 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 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. §404.1520(a). 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., appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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. RESIDUAL FUNCTIONAL CAPACITY ("RFC")
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 20, pp. 14-19). More specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in giving "significant weight" to the non-examining state agency psychologist, Dr. Dalton, while affording only "some weight" to portions of the opinions of examining psychologists, Dr. Kohn and Dr. Thompson. Id. To this end, Plaintiff submits that the ALJ erred in two ways: 1) "by crediting the opinion of a non-examining physician over that of examining physicians, " and 2) because Dr. Dalton's opinion is not supported by the evidence. (ECF No. 20, pp. 16-17). Thus, Plaintiff submits that this case should be remanded. Id. at 17.
Contrary to Plaintiff's assertion, a examining physician does not get more weight over a non-examining consultant simply because of that fact. Rather, the amount of weight ...