United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
PASSION S. DANIELS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION and ORDER OF COURT SYNOPSIS
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 and 13). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 10 and 14). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 9) and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 13).
Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff filed her applications for benefits alleging she has been disabled since December 8, 2009. (Docket Nos. 8-5, p. 2). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), John J. Porter, held a hearing on October 31, 2011. (Docket No. 8-2, pp. 27-48). On November 23, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Docket No. 8-2, pp. 14-22). After exhausting all administrative remedies thereafter, Plaintiff filed this action.
The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 9 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); 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
B. Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's RFC finding is not supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 10, pp. 11-12). Specifically, Plaintiff submits that the opinion of Dr. Reynaldo Torio, the state agency examining medical consultant, given great weight by the ALJ, did not have the benefit of the complete record in 2010 to formulate a valid assessment. Id. As a result, Plaintiff asserts that Dr. Torio's opinion does not amount to substantial evidence and, thus, the ALJ's decision based on the same cannot be based on substantial evidence. Id. I disagree. An ALJ is entitled to rely upon the findings of an agency evaluator even if there is a lapse of time between the report and the hearing. Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2012). Thus, the ALJ was entitled to rely on Dr. Torio's opinion.
Moreover, the ALJ acknowledged that there was more recent evidence limiting Plaintiff further than the opinion of Dr. Torio. (ECF No. 8-2, p. 20). The ALJ noted that "[t]o the extent that the residual functional capacity differs from Dr. Torio's opinion, the undersigned found more recent evidence indicative of an additional limitation regarding workplace hazards." Id. Thus, I find the ALJ properly considered the opinion of Dr. ...