United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
GERALD B. COHN, Magistrate Judge.
The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying the application of Plaintiff Ronald Polidori for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-433 (the "Act"). In his appeal, Plaintiff asserts that his back impairments preclude him from engaging in the limited range of light work the ALJ found he could perform. In support of this claim, he presents a single allegation of error by the ALJ: his failure to give controlling weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Robert Mathews. However, the ALJ properly discounted this opinion on the grounds that it was internally inconsistent and incoherent. Moreover, an ALJ can assign controlling weight only to treating source opinions that are both well-supported and not contradicted by other evidence. Here, Dr. Mathews' opinion was contradicted by the vast majority of other evidence, including Plaintiff's report that epidural steroid injections considerably improved his pain and his lack of treatment thereafter. Plaintiff also refused to follow any of his physiatrist's treatment recommendations and was treating his back pain only with over-the-counter aspirin and home stretching exercises at the time of the hearing. The Court reviews an ALJ's denial of benefits under the substantial evidence standard, where a decision stands if any reasonable mind could accept the relevant evidence as adequate to deny benefits. Here, despite Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments and objective physical abnormalities, a reasonable mind could accept the ALJ's reasoning as adequate in rejecting Dr. Mathews' opinion and concluding that Plaintiff can engage in a limited range of light work. For all of the foregoing reasons, the Court will deny Plaintiff's appeal.
II. Procedural Background
On July 22, 2010, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB under Title II of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 110-11). On October 18, 2010, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied this application (Tr. 74), and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on October 24, 2010. (Tr. 97). On September 16, 2011, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert appeared and testified. (Tr. 12-46). On November 7, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 76-91). On November 17, 2011, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 9-11), which the Appeals Council denied on June 21, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-5).
On August 19, 2013, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to appeal the decision of the Commissioner. (Doc. 1). On October 31, 2013, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 7, 8). On December 2, 2013, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of his appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 9). On December 27, 2013, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 10). On May 1, 2014, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Both parties consented to the referral of this case for adjudication to the undersigned Magistrate Judge on June 13, 2014, and an order referring the case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for adjudication was entered on June 18, 2014. (Doc. 12, 13).
III. Standard of Review
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, the Court must determine whether substantial evidence supports the denial. Brown v. Bowen , 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec. , 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart , 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). Substantial evidence "does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence." Pierce v. Underwood , 487 U.S. 552, 564 (1988). Substantial evidence requires only "more than a mere scintilla" of evidence, Plummer v. Apfel , 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999), and may be less than a preponderance. Jones , 364 F.3d at 503. If a "reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate, " then substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's determination. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler , 806 F.2d 1185, 1190 (3d Cir. 1986); Hartranft v. Apfel , 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999); Johnson , 529 F.3d at 200.
IV. Sequential Evaluation Process
To receive disability or supplemental security benefits, a claimant must demonstrate an "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any 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 not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act requires that a claimant for disability benefits show that he has a physical or mental impairment of such a severity that:
He 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, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
The Commissioner uses a five-step evaluation process to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see also Plummer , 186 F.3d at 428. If the Commissioner finds that a Plaintiff is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not proceed. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The Commissioner must sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment from 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the "listings"); (4) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant's impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Before moving on to step four in this process, the ALJ must also determine Plaintiff's residual functional capacity ("RFC"). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(e), 416.920(e).
The disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Mason v. Shalala , 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). The ultimate burden of proving disability within the meaning of the Act lies with the plaintiff. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.912(a).
V. Relevant Facts in the Record
Plaintiff was born on September 28, 1957 and was classified by the regulations as a person closely approaching advanced age through the date of the ALJ decision. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563. (Tr. 34). He has a limited education and past relevant work as a truck driver/machine ...