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Samuel v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 25, 2014



GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 25th of August, 2014, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment relating to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (-Commissioner") 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. 12) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Document No. 10) 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). Importantly, 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 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[1] for benefits on July 12, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2009, due to depression, bipolar disorder and arthritis. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially. At plaintiff's request an ALJ held a hearing on January 17, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On March 7, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On May 15, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 47 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) and 416.963(c). Plaintiff has at least a high school education, and has past relevant work experience as a switch repair technician, security guard, repair technician, sheet metal worker and service in the army infantry, but he has not engaged in 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 is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ found that the medical evidence establishes that plaintiff suffers from the severe physical impairments of chronic back pain with degenerative disc disease at the L4-5 and L5-S1 levels with mild canal stenosis, left elbow tendonitis, right knee arthralgia, tachycardia, as well as numerous mental impairments including bipolar disorder, recurrent severe major depressive disorder with psychotic features, and poly-substance abuse and dependence. (R. 117). However, the ALJ determined that those impairments, alone or in combination, do not 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 plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with numerous restrictions to accommodate the limiting effects of his physical and mental impairments.[2] A vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff can perform based upon his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including fruit cutter, folder, paper pattern folder, cuff folder and nut sorter. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that although plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work, he is capable of making an adjustment to work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is not disabled.

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. §§ 42 (d)(1)(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)(1)(B) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process[3] for determining whether a claimant is under a disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920; Newell v. Commissioner of Social Security , 347 F.3d 541, 545 (3d Cir. 2003), 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 raises three challenges to the ALJ's findings:) the ALJ erred at step 3 by finding that plaintiff does not have an impairment that meets or medically equals the criteria of any listed impairment; (2) the ALJ failed to consider all of plaintiff's impairments in combination; and, (3) the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding that plaintiff can perform light work fails to account for all of plaintiff's limitations supported by the record. Upon review, the court is satisfied that the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence and that all of the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiffs first argument is that the ALJ erred at step 3 by finding that plaintiff does not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 of the Regulations. This argument is without merit as this court's review of the record confirms that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's step 3 finding.

At step 3, the All must determine whether the claimant's impairment matches, or is equivalent to, one of the impairments listed in appendix 1 of the Regulations. Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration , 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). The listings describe impairments that prevent an adult, regardless of age, education, or work experience, from performing any gainful activity. Knepp v. Apfel , 204 F.3d 78, 85 (3d Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d) and 416.920(d). "If the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment then [the claimant] is per se disabled and no further analysis is necessary." Burnett , 220 F.3d at 119.

The ALJ has the burden to identify the relevant listed impairment that compares with the claimant's impairment and must "fully develop the record and explain his findings at step 3, including an analysis of whether and why [the claimant's]... impairments... are or are not equivalent in severity to one of the listed impairments." Id. at 120, n.2. However, the burden is on the claimant to present medical findings that show that his impairment matches or is equal in severity to a listed impairment. Williams v. Sullivan , 970 F.2d 1178, 1186 (3d Cir. 1992).

Here, the ALJ determined that "the medical evidence does not contain the objective signs, symptoms or findings, or the degree of functional limitations, necessary for [plaintiff s] impairments, considered singly or in combination, to meet or equal the severity of any sub-section of sections 1.00, 4.00, 12.00 or any other section contained in Appendix 1, " (R. 118) and he proceeded to provide an adequate explanation of that finding. (R. ...

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