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Roberson v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 26, 2014



GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 26th day of August, 2014, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to plaintiff's request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act, IT IS ORDERED that the Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 16) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 12) 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). Moreover, it is well settled that disability is not determined merely by the presence of impairments, but by the effect that those impairments have upon an individual's ability to perform substantial gainful activity. Jones v. Sullivan , 954 F.2d 125, 129 (3d Cir. 1991). 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 filed his applications for DIB and SSI on April 12, 2010, alleging disability beginning on September 15, 2007, due to depression, anxiety and back, leg and foot problems. Plaintiff's applications were denied. At plaintiff's request, an AU held a hearing on January 25, 2012. At the hearing, plaintiff's counsel amended his alleged disability onset date to February 5, 2010, which is the day after the previous unfavorable decision issued on his earlier application. Plaintiff's counsel acknowledged that the prior decision, which subsequently was upheld by the Appeals Council, had become final and binding.[1] By the amendment, plaintiff's counsel constructively withdrew his DIB claim because his date last insured for DIE purposes was March 31, 2008. As a result, the AU dismissed plaintiff's claim for DIB.

On March 15, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision on plaintiff's SSI claim, finding that he is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on July 23, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The instant action followed.

Plaintiff, who has a high school education through a general equivalency degree, was 45 years old on his amended alleged disability onset date, and is classified as a younger individual under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §416.963(c) plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a dishwasher, sales clerk, janitor and musician, but he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time since his amended alleged onset date.

After reviewing plaintiff's medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Although the medical evidence established that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of the residual effects of right tibia and ankle fractures, osteoarthritis of the left knee, L5 disc protrusion, mood disorder and a history of learning disability and polysubstance abuse, those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 ("Appendix 1").

The ALJ found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with a number of additional non-exertional limitations. plaintiff is limited to performing work that involves simple, repetitive tasks that do not require dealing with the general public or maintaining close interaction and cooperation with co-workers (collectively, the "RFC Finding").

Based upon testimony by a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's vocational factors and residual functional capacity enable him to perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a sorter, assembler or addresser. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment that can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment or impairments must be so severe that the claimant 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

The commissioner has promulgated regulations that incorporate a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether his impairment meets or equals the criteria listed in Appendix 1; (4) if not, whether the claimant's impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity.[2] 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4). If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id.

In this case, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step 5 because: (1) the ALJ did not properly evaluate the opinion of various physicians who treated and examined him; and (2) the ALJ improperly assessed plaintiff's credibility by relying on his own lay opinion and bias. The court finds that these arguments lack merit.

Plaintiff first argues that the AUJ did not properly evaluate the opinion of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Tracy Javaherian, as well as the respective opinions of Dr. Steven Pacella, Dr. Anita LaLumere and Dr. Antonio Riccelli who performed one-time consultative examinations. Contrary to plaintiff's position, the ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinions in this case.

First, Dr. Javaherian completed a "check the box" form report which asked for an assessment of plaintiff's ability to perform various mental work-related activities. (R. 830-832). Dr. Javaherian was asked to rate plaintiff's ability to make occupational adjustments, performance adjustments and personal/social adjustments as "unlimited, " "good, " "fair, " "poor" or "none". In all areas, Dr. Javaherian rated plaintiff's ability to function as ...

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