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Golzak v. Colvin

United States District Court, Middle District of Pennsylvania

March 13, 2014

BRIAN GOLZAK, Plaintiff
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, [1] Defendant

MEMORANDUM

JAMES M. MUNLEY, JUDGE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT.

Before the court for disposition is Plaintiff Brian Golzak’s (hereinafter “plaintiff”) appeal of the denial of supplemental security income benefits. The matter has been fully briefed and is ripe for disposition.

Background

Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income on December 5, 2005. (Doc. 4, Record (hereinafter “R”) at 16).[2] He alleges a disability as of August 1, 2004. (Id.) He originally claimed disability based upon anxiety, high cholesterol, a cardiac condition and an immune system problem. (Id. at 181-82).

An administrative law judge (hereinafter “ALJ”) denied plaintiff’s application on July 24, 2007 after an administrative hearing. (Id. at 43-53). The Social Security Administration Appeals Council vacated the denial and remanded for a de novo decision. (Id. at 149-52). The matter was remanded for an analysis of plaintiff’s obesity and an evaluation of the opinion of psychologist Carl T. Sebastianelli, M.A. (Id. at 150).

On January 4, 2011, a different ALJ, Ronald Sweeda, held a hearing. He issued a decision finding plaintiff not disabled on April 21, 2011. (Id. at 13-26). Plaintiff now appeals that denial to this court.

Plaintiff was thirty-two years of age on the date his alleged disability began. (Id. at 191). He has had a history of cardiovascular and psychological ailments. In school he completed the tenth grade, and he did not attend special education classes. (Id. at 65, 186). When the first hearing was held, plaintiff lived with his girlfriend of eleven years and their child and three children from his girlfriend’s previous relationship. (Id. at 64). His girlfriend was pregnant at the time with their second child. (Id.)

At the time of his second hearing, plaintiff was living with his mother. (Id. at 98). The last job he had was in 2004, which he left due to heart problems. (Id.) He receives welfare and food stamps/Access card. (Id.) Plaintiff can read and write and do simple math problems. (Id. at 97). He does not have a driver’s license. (Id.) When, at his most recent hearing, plaintiff was asked to describe the reasons he could not work, he responded, “Like, everything. My back, my legs, my chest. I take nitro for angina. I take-my arms are weak, everything. I’m just-I can’t focus. I’m not . . . I’m not in good health.” (Id. at 98).

The ALJ analyzed the case pursuant to the appropriate five-step sequential analysis, which is described more fully below. He found the plaintiff to be “not disabled.” The plaintiff challenges that decision with the instant appeal.

Jurisdiction

The court has federal question jurisdiction over this Social Security Administration appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section 405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner’s final determinations under section 405 of this title.”); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has his principal place of business . . . .”).

Standard of Review

In reviewing a Social Security appeal, this court must determine whether “substantial evidence” supports the ALJ’s decision. See, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hagans v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir. 2012); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). The United States Supreme Court has defined “substantial evidence” as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has explained that “substantial evidence has been defined as ‘more than a mere scintilla;’ it means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.’” Hagans, 694 F.3d at 292 (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427).

The court should not reverse the Commissioner’s findings merely because evidence may exist to support the opposite conclusion. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute its own conclusion for those of the fact-finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001)(indicating that when the ALJ’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, courts are bound by those findings, even if they would have decided the factual inquiry differently). In an adequately developed factual record, substantial evidence may be “something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent an administrative agency’s finding from being supported by substantial evidence.” Consolo, 383 U.S. at 620.

Substantial evidence exists only “in relationship to all the other evidence in the record, ” Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981) and “must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971). “When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but ‘cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.” Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (quoting Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir. 1993). The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Johnson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 204 (3d Cir. 2008). Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir.1981).

Discussion

After a careful review of plaintiff’s arguments, we find no merit to the instant appeal, and it will be denied. To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A) (emphasis added). An individual is incapable of engaging in “substantial gainful activity” when “his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

The Commissioner evaluates supplemental security income claims with a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4). This analysis requires the Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity;[3] (2) has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe;[4] (3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the requirements of a “listed impairment”; (4) has the “residual functional capacity” to return to his or her past work; and (5) if not, whether he or she can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(I)-(v) and 416.920(a)(4)(I)-(v). Prior to addressing step four, the ALJ must determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity.[5]20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) and 416.920(a)(4)(iv). A plaintiff’s residual functional capacity is “the most [the plaintiff] can still do despite [his] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).

In applying the five-step sequential analysis in the instant case, the ALJ found the following: 1) plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 5, 2005; 2) plaintiff suffers from severe impairments of coronary artery disease, attention deficit hyperactivity and anxiety disorder; 3) the plaintiff’s impairments do not meet or medically equal a listed impairment; 4) plaintiff cannot do past relevant work and 5) the plaintiff is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. at 18-25).

Plaintiff’s appeal raises the following four issues: 1) Are plaintiff’s mental impairments as outlined prior to the first ALJ’s hearing such that they are sufficient to render him disabled under listings 12.02, 12.06, 12.08? 2) Did plaintiff’s second mental status examination confirm the severity of his condition and find him even more impaired so as to meet listings 12.02, 12.06 or 12.08? 3) Did the ALJ overly downplay the effects of plaintiff’s heart condition and the side effects of plaintiff’s medications? and 4) Did the ALJ improperly provide greater weight to the assessment of the “DDS” physician who had never seen the claimant and improperly discount the findings and observations of the doctor that the ALJ had sent plaintiff to for evaluation? We find no merit to any of these contentions, but we will address them in turn.

I. Mental impairment and the first ALJ’s hearing

The first alleged error raised by plaintiff is whether the severity of the plaintiff’s mental condition as outlined prior to the first ALJ’s hearing was sufficient to render him disabled. This issue, however, is not properly before the court. As explained above, the initial ALJ’s decision was remanded by the Appeals Council. Then a second ALJ, Ronald Sweeda, held a hearing, examining more evidence than the first ALJ had available. ALJ Sweeda rendered a decision denying benefits. (R. at 16-26). This second decision is the one at issue in the present appeal and the result of the first hearing is irrelevant. Thus, we find no merit to the plaintiff’s first argument.

II. Plaintiff’s second mental status examination and listings 12.02, 12.06 and 12.08

The plaintiff’s next argument involves the ALJ’s analysis of the third step of the sequential analysis. That is, whether plaintiff’s impairments meet a “listed impairment.” A “listed impairment” is one that appears on the Commissioner’s Listing of Impairments, which is “a list of impairments presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 525 (1990). If the claimant has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or equals a listed impairment, the claimant is disabled. If the claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals a listed impairment, the sequential evaluation process proceeds to an evaluation of the plaintiff’s residual functional capacity and the next step in the sequential analysis. Plaintiff bears the burden of establishing that he meets these listings. See Poulos v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 92 (3d Cir. 2007) (Claimant bears the burden of establishing steps one through four of the sequential evaluation. Step three is whether plaintiff’s impairment(s) meet a listing). Plaintiff asserts that he meets listings 12.02, 12.06 and 12.08, and that this conclusion is supported by a second mental status examination which occurred in March 2011. We disagree.

Plaintiff’s brief fails to provide an in-depth analysis as to the manner in which plaintiff meets any of these listings and their very specific requirements. With regard to this issue, plaintiff’s briefs do little more than present which listings plaintiff claims should apply. Without medical evidence and analysis explaining his position, we are required to find ...


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