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Isbell v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

May 19, 2014




AND NOW, this 19th of May, 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") partially denying plaintiffs applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 10) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiff s motion for summary judgment (Document No. 8) 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 of fact 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 applications for benefits[1] on April 22, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of August 2, 2009, due to knee and back impairments. Plaintiffs applications were denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on November 2, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On December 7, 2011, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision finding plaintiff disabled beginning March 9, 2011, but not disabled before that date. On June 10, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 37 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) and 416.963(c). He has a high school education having obtained a GED. He has past relevant work as a waiter/bartender, janitor, packaging division supervisor, dishwasher and forklift operation crew leader, but he has not performed any substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date.

After reviewing plaintiffs medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff became disabled within the meaning of the Act on March 9, 2011. The ALJ found that while plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease of the knees, status post multiple reconstruction surgery, anserine bursitis bilaterally, lumbosacral musculoskeletal strain, and chronic pain syndrome, the medical evidence does not show that plaintiffs 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 also found that prior to March 9, 2011, plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work but limited to carrying 5 pounds occasionally and 2 pounds frequently, he can never knee or crawl and can only occasionally engage in all other postural activities, (R.22). A vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff could have performed prior to March 9, 2011, based upon his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including telephone clerk, telephone solicitor and cashier. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that prior to March 9, 2011, there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could have performed, Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the Act prior to March 9, 2011.

After March 9, 2011, however, the day that plaintiff underwent a total left knee arthroplasty, the ALJ found additional limitations in plaintiffs ability to perform sedentary work, including: that he is restricted to a sit/stand option which would allow him to alternate between sitting for a 1/2 hour, standing for 5 minutes, then sitting for a 1/2 hour; that he can perform only simple, unskilled, repetitive work; and, that he will be off-task for 10 minutes every hour. (R. 25), With these additional limitations, the vocational expert testified that there are no jobs in the national economy that plaintiff can perform. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff became disabled on March 9, 2011.

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)(l)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(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) and §1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability.[2] 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520 and 416.920. 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 challenges the ALJ's determination that he was not disabled prior to March 9, 2011. Specifically, plaintiff" contends that: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence in finding that plaintiffs treating physician's report dated August 11, 2011, was not retroactive to the period from plaintiffs alleged onset date to March 9, 2011; (2) the ALJ erred in not re-contacting his treating physician to ascertain whether the report was intended to be retroactive; and, (3) the ALJ erred in failing to consult with a medical advisor to establish plaintiffs onset date. Upon review, this court is satisfied that the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence and that the ALJ's finding that plaintiff was not disabled prior to March 9, 2011, is supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiffs first argument is that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence in failing to give retroactive effect to the August 11, 2011, physical residual functional capacity questionnaire (R. 300-305) provided by plaintiffs treating physician, Dr. Scott Baron, which the ALJ found to establish plaintiff s functional capabilities after his knee surgery on March 9, 2011. (R. 25). The court finds no error in the ALJ's analysis of this evidence nor his determination that Dr. Baron's assessment is not retroactive to the period prior to plaintiffs surgery.

Under the Social Security Regulations and the law of this circuit, opinions of treating physicians are entitled to substantial, and at times even controlling, weight. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1527(d)(2) and 416.927(d)(2); Fargnoli. 247 F.3d at 33. Where a treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of an impairment is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, it will be given controlling weight. Id. However, when a treating source's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, it is to be evaluated and weighed under the same standards applied to all other medical opinions, taking into account numerous factors, including the opinion's supportability, consistency and specialization. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1527(d) and 416.927(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) and 416.927(e); SSR 96-5p.

Here, the ALJ adhered to the foregoing standards in evaluating Dr. Baron's assessment and in explaining why it should not be given retroactive effect to the period pr/or to March 9, 2011. (R. 24-25). In particular, the ALJ noted that there is no indication in Dr. Baron's report that his assessment was retroactive and that "any such attempt to apply these assessments to the time period prior to March 9, 2011, would be inconsistent with Dr. Baron's own treatment records." (R. 25). The ALJ further noted plaintiffs training for work in graphic design in December 2009, that he ...

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