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Lopez v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 16, 2014

KELLY LYNN LOPEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 7 and 13). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 8, 14 and 15). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 7) and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 13).

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff filed an application for benefits on April 26, 2010, alleging she had been disabled since February 18, 2005. (Docket Nos. 6-5, pp. 2-4). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Alfred J. Costanzo held a hearing on November 18, 2011. (Docket No. 6-2, pp. 26-53). On December 12, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Docket No. 6-2, pp 12-21). After exhausting all administrative remedies thereafter, Plaintiff filed this action. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 7 and 13). 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. ASSESSMENT OF PLAINTIFF'S MENTAL IMPAIRMENTS[1]

Plaintiff submits that the ALJ erred in evaluating her mental impairments. (ECF No. 8, pp. 12-28; No. 15, pp. 3-17). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the brevity by the ALJ in assessing the opinion evidence requires remand. (ECF No. 8, pp. 12-28). Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ fails to mention, let alone discuss, the opinion of Dr. Bailey, a consultative examiner, such that this court cannot make a meaningful review. (ECF No. 8, pp. 17-18). Plaintiff also submits that the opinion of the ALJ is internally inconsistent, that the ALJ failed to discuss the diagnoses of bipolar disorder and agoraphobia with panic disorder, that he mischaracterized the assessment of CRNP Riddle, and completely ignored medical treatment records. Id. at pp. 18-27. Defendant counters that the ALJ adequately supported his decision with substantial evidence and should be affirmed. (ECF No. 15). After a review of the record, I agree with Plaintiff.

An ALJ must provide sufficient explanation of his or her final determination to provide a reviewing court with the benefit of the factual basis underlying the ultimate disability finding. Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981). In other words, the ALJ must provide sufficient discussion to allow the court to determine whether any rejection of potentially pertinent, relevant evidence was proper. Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 203-04 (3d Cir. 2008). An ALJ's findings should be as "comprehensive and analytical as feasible, " so that the reviewing court may properly exercise its duties under 42 U.S.C. §405(g). Cotter, 642 F.2d at 705. An ALJ's decision should ...


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