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Willis v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

April 10, 2014

MICHAEL J. WILLIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MARTIN C. CARLSON, Magistrate Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

This is an action brought under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security to deny the plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the Social Security Act (Act), 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. The plaintiff, Michael J. Willis, protectively filed an application for benefits on May 14, 2010, alleging disability since May 7, 2010, due to lower back and middle back pain, neck pain, rib pain, and arm and leg weakness and numbness. (Tr. 85, 175, 179.) The agency denied the claims administratively on September 23, 2010. (Tr. 112.) Thereafter, plaintiff's counsel requested and received an administrative hearing on his claims. (Tr. 60-84.) Following this hearing, at which the plaintiff and a vocational expert appeared and testified, an administrative law judge (ALJ) found the plaintiff was capable of unskilled, sedentary work such as information clerk, interview clerk, or protective service worker. (Tr. 41.) Accordingly, the administrative law judge found that the plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to engage in substantial employment, and denied his claim for DIB.[1]

The plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which found no reason to review the administrative law judge's decision and denied the plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1-5.) The administrative judge's decision is, therefore, the final decision of the Commissioner. The plaintiff filed this civil action seeking review of that decision, arguing that the ALJ erred in his assessment of the plaintiff's residual functional capacity by placing excessive emphasis on some evidence in the record while minimizing the opinions of the plaintiff's treating physicians. Additionally, the plaintiff asserts that this case should be remanded to the ALJ so that the plaintiff can offer evidence to support his claim that he is disabled as a result of depression - evidence that was withheld from the administrative law judge initially because the plaintiff failed to disclose this evidence to his legal representative in the administrative proceedings.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standards of Review-The Roles of the Administrative Law Judge and This Court

1. Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion and Articulation for the ALJ

Resolution of the instant social security appeal involves an informed consideration of the respective roles of two adjudicators-the ALJ and this Court. At the outset, it is the responsibility of the ALJ in the first instance to determine whether a claimant has met the statutory prerequisites for entitlement to benefits. To receive disability benefits, a claimant must present evidence which demonstrates that the claimant has 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). Furthermore,

[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work. For purposes of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), "work which exists in the national economy" means work which exists in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.

42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

In making this determination the ALJ employs a five-step evaluation process to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. See also Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999). If the ALJ finds that a plaintiff is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not proceed any further. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. As part of this analysis the ALJ must sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

This disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The initial burden rests with the claimant to demonstrate that he is unable to engage in 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 , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993).

The ALJ's disability determination must also meet certain basic procedural and substantive requisites. Most significant among these legal benchmarks is a requirement that the ALJ adequately explain the legal and factual basis for this disability determination. Thus, in order to facilitate review of the decision under the substantial evidence standard, the ALJ's decision must be accompanied by "a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which it rests." Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981). Conflicts in the evidence must be resolved and the ALJ must indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting certain evidence. Id. at 706-707. In addition, "[t]he ALJ must indicate in his decision which evidence he has rejected and which he is relying on as the basis for his finding." Schaudeck v. Com. of Soc. Sec. , 181 F.3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).

2. Guidelines for Assessment of the Disabling Effect of Pain

Moreover, where a disability determination turns on an assessment of the level of a claimant's pain, the Social Security Regulations provide a framework under which a claimant's subjective complaints are to be considered. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. Such cases require the ALJ to "evaluate the intensity and persistence of the pain or symptom, and the extent to which it affects the individual's ability to work." Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 362 (3d Cir. 1999). Cases involving an assessment of subjective reports of pain "obviously require[ ]" the ALJ "to determine the extent to which a claimant is accurately stating the degree of pain or the extent to which he or she is disabled by it." Id.

In making this assessment, the ALJ is guided both by statute and by regulations. This guidance eschews wholly subjective assessments of a claimant's pain. Instead. at the outset, by statute the ALJ is admonished that an "individual's statement as to pain or other symptoms shall not alone be conclusive evidence of disability as defined in this section; there must be medical signs and findings, established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques, which show the existence of a medical impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged and which, when considered with all the evidence..., would lead to a conclusion that the individual is under a disability." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A).

Applying this statutory guidance, the Social Security Regulations provide a framework under which a claimant's subjective complaints are to be considered. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. Under these regulations, first, symptoms, such as pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue, will only be considered to affect a claimant's ability to perform work activities if such symptoms result from an underlying physical or mental impairment that has been demonstrated to exist by medical signs or laboratory findings. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Once a medically determinable impairment which results in such symptoms is found to exist, the Commissioner must evaluate the intensity and persistence of such symptoms to determine their impact on the claimant's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). In so doing, the medical evidence of record is considered along with the claimant's statements. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Social Security Ruling 96-7p gives the following instructions in evaluating the credibility of the claimant's statements regarding his symptoms: "In general, the extent to which an individual's statements about symptoms can be relied upon as probative evidence in determining whether the individual is disabled depends on the credibility of the statements. In basic terms, the credibility of an individual's statements about pain or other symptoms and their functional effects is the degree to which the statements can be believed and accepted as true. When evaluating the credibility of an individual's statements, the adjudicator must consider the entire case record and give specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's statements." SSR 96-7p. SSR 96-4p provides that "Once the existence of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged has been established on the basis of medical signs and laboratory findings, allegations about the intensity and persistence of the symptoms must be considered with the objective medical abnormalities, and all other evidence in the case record, in evaluating the functionally limiting effects of the impairment(s)." SSR 96-4p.

3. Legal Benchmarks for Assessing Treating Physician Opinions

Further, it is beyond dispute that the ALJ's decision must be accompanied by "a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on which it rests." Cotter v. Harris , 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981). This principle applies with particular force to the testimony of a treating physician, testimony that is to be accorded great weight by the ALJ. In this regard, the legal standards governing our evaluation of this type of evidence are familiar ones. In Morales v. Apfel , 225 F.3d 310 (3d Cir. 2000), the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit set forth the standard for evaluating the opinion of a physician stating that:

A cardinal principle guiding disability eligibility determinations is that the ALJ accord treating physicians' reports great weight, especially "when their opinions reflect expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time." Plummer [v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir.1999)] (quoting Rocco v. Heckler , 826 F.2d 1348, 1350 (3d Cir.1987)); see also Adorno v. Shalala , 40 F.3d 43, 47 (3d Cir.1994); Jones, 954 F.2d at 128; Allen v. Bowen , 881 F.2d 37, 40-41 (3d Cir.1989); Frankenfield v. Bowen , 861 F.2d 405, 408 (3d Cir.1988); Brewster, 786 F.2d at 585. Where, as here, the opinion of a treating physician conflicts with that of a non-treating, non-examining physician, 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 (citing Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir.1993)). The ALJ must consider the medical findings that support a treating physician's opinion that the claimant is disabled. See Adorno , 40 F.3d at 48. In choosing to reject the treating physician's assessment, an ALJ may not make "speculative inferences from medical reports" and may reject "a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence" and not due to his or her own credibility judgments, speculation or lay opinion. Plummer , 186 F.3d at 429; Frankenfield v. Bowen , 861 F.2d 405, 408 (3d Cir.1988); Kent, 710 F.2d at 115.

Id. at 317-318.

Furthermore, when assessing competing views of treating and non-treating physicians, the ALJ and this court are cautioned that:

[A]n ALJ is not free to employ her own expertise against that of a physician who presents competent medical evidence. Ferguson, 765 F.2d at 37 (1985). 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." Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d Cir.1993). The ALJ must consider all the evidence and give some reason for discounting the evidence she rejects. See Stewart v. Secretary of H.E.W. , 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir.1983). Treating physicians' reports should be accorded great weight, especially "when their opinions reflect expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time." Rocco v. Heckler , 826 F.2d 1348, 1350 (3d Cir.1987); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2) (providing for controlling weight where treating physician opinion is well-supported by medical evidence and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record.) An ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence, but may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are provided. Newhouse v. Heckler , 753 F.2d 283, 286 (3d Cir.1985).

Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir.1999).

Similarly, the Social Security Regulations state that when the opinion of a treating physician is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in your case record, " it is to be given controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2). When the opinion of a physician is not given controlling weight, the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination must be considered. The Regulations state:

Generally, the longer a treating source has treated you and the more times you have been seen by a treating source, the more weight we will give to the source's medical opinion. When the treating source has seen you a number of times and long enough to have obtained a longitudinal picture of your impairment, we will give the ...

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