United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT
GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.
AND NOW, this 26th of March, 2014, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 12) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Document No.7) be, and the same hereby is, denied.
As the factfinder, an Administrative Law Judge (" ALJ") has an obligation to weigh all of the facts and evidence of record and may reject or discount any evidence if the ALJ explains the reasons for doing so. Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). Where the ALJ's findings offact are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court is bound by those findings, even if it would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Fargnoli v. Massanari , 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). These well-established principles preclude a reversal or remand of the ALJ's decision here because the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings and conclusions.
Plaintiff protectively filed his pending application for benefits on July 19, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of September 9, 2008, due to post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder, as well as a number of physical impairments. Plaintiffs application was denied initially. At plaintiff's request an ALJ held a hearing on September 16, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On March 20, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On August 17, 2012, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff was 31 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a younger person under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §404.1563(c). He has at least a high school education and honorably served in the United States Marine Corps. Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a security officer and a loss prevention officer, but has not performed any substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date.
After reviewing plaintiff's medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ found that while plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder and a history of drug and alcohol abuse, in remission,  the medical evidence does not show that plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed at Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P.
The ALJ further found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with numerous restrictions accounting for the limiting effects of his mental impairments. A vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff can perform based upon his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including vehicle cleaner, janitor and night cleaner. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Act.
The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A). The impairment or impairments must be so severe that the claimant "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 has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability. 20 c.P.R. §404.1520.
If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the claim need not be reviewed further. Id .; see Barnhart v. Thomas , 124 S.Ct. 376 (2003).
Here, plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence for a number of reasons: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence; (2) the ALJ erred by not finding plaintiff disabled at step 3; (3) the ALJ improperly evaluated plaintiff's credibility; and, (4) the ALJ erred at step 5 by relying on the vocational expert's response to an incomplete hypothetical. Upon review, this court is satisfied that the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence and that all of the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff's first argument is that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence. Under the Social Security Regulations, an ALJ is to evaluate every medical opinion received, regardless of its source, and is required to consider numerous factors in deciding the weight to which each opinion is entitled, taking into account numerous factors including the opinion's supportability, consistency and specialization. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(d). Importantly, the opinion of any physician on the issue of what an individual's residual functional capacity is or on the ultimate determination of disability never is entitled to special significance. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(e); SSR 96-5p.
Here, the ALJ adhered to the foregoing standards in evaluating the medical evidence. His decision makes clear that he considered all of the relevant evidence from all medical sources and provided a detailed analysis of that evidence, setting forth sufficient explanations as to why he rejected or discounted any such evidence. CR. 18). The court is satisfied that the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff raises numerous specific challenges to the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence which the court now will address. First, he takes issue with the following statement in the ALJ' s decision relating to plaintiff's July 2009 psychiatric evaluation: "I have assigned a global assessment of functioning (GAF) score of 59, indicative of only minor symptoms." (R. 19). Plaintiff argues that this statement is erroneous and amounts to the ALJ substituting his own opinion for the medical evidence. See Morales v. Apfel , 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000)(ALJ may ...