United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania
ROXANNE L. EHREDT Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
DONETTA W. AMBROSE SENIOR JUDGE, U.S. DISTRICT COURT
Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits pursuant to Title II, alleging disability beginning on March 18, 2010, as the result of mental and physical impairments. Her claim was denied initially and upon hearing. The Appeals Council denied her request for review. Plaintiff now appeals the Commissioner’s decision. For the following reason, Plaintiff’s Motion will be granted, and Defendant’s denied. This matter will be remanded for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.
A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 - 97, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).
II. PLAINTIFF’S MOTION
Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred on the following grounds: 1) in weighing the medical opinion evidence, including the opinion of Plaintiff’s treating psychologist; and 2) in failing to include all of her limitations in the RFC.
A. MEDICAL OPINION EVIDENCE
First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in giving little weight to the opinion of her treating psychologist, Nancy Baker, and affording great weight to the opinion of a state agency physician, Dr. Heil.
"It is axiomatic that the Commissioner cannot reject the opinion of a treating physician without specifically referring to contradictory medical evidence." Moffatt v. Astrue, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103508, at *6 (W.D.Pa. 2010). This principle allows an ALJ to reject a treating medical source statement if the opinions therein are inconsistent with the physician’s treatment notes. Bartlett v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 56860 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 24, 2014). Even when a treating physician's opinion is not given controlling weight, however, it is entitled to "great weight, especially when [it] reflect[s] expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time.'" Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317-18 (3d Cir. 2000).
In this case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had “severe” impairments, inter alia, in the nature of anxiety and panic attacks. Dr. Baker began treating Plaintiff on November 1, 2011, and continued to do so weekly or biweekly until the date of the hearing. In July of 2012, Dr. Baker opined that Plaintiff was extremely limited in responding appropriately to work pressures and changes in a work setting; markedly limitated regarding short, simple instructions; extremely limited regarding detailed instructions; and markedly limited in making judgments on simple work-related decisions. She also opined that Plaintiff was markedly limited in interacting appropriately with the public, and extremely limited in interacting appropriately with supervisors and coworkers.
In turn, Dr. Heil’s August 18, 2011 analysis included medical record evidence from Blair Medical Associates, relating to Plaintiff’s physical condition; it also included an assessment of Plaintiff’s activities of daily living. There is no suggestion in the record that he examined or met with Plaintiff. Dr. Heil considered whether Plaintiff’s condition met Listing 12.06 for Anxiety-Related Disorders. He found that they did not, and as “Additional Explanation, ” stated as follows:
Although the claimant has alleged significant symptoms of depression and anxiety, particularly on the 3373, there is no evidence to support a severe MDI in the existing MER. Based on the medical evidence of record, the claimant’s mental health impairment is determined to be non-severe at the present time. Consideration was given to further development of the claim; however, there is sufficient evidence in file to make a determination.
The ALJ afforded Dr. Baker’s “assessment little weight, since…her opinion is inconsistent with her findings, the clinical findings of record, and with other substantial evidence.” Instead, the ALJ gave “significant probative weight” to Dr. Heil’s report, which he ...