United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM Docs. 1, 9, 10, 11, 12
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 Mandy Gill disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§401-433, 1382-1383 (the "Act"). Plaintiff presented only a single allegation of error on the part of the administrative law judge ("ALJ"), whose denial of benefits constitutes the final decision of the Commissioner, namely, that the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to limitations in handling and fingering contained in the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Alice McCormick. However, Dr. McCormick had last examined Plaintiff's musculoskeletal system in June of 2009, well before Plaintiff's alleged onset in April of 2010 or Dr. McCormick's opinion in March of 2011. The only time Dr. McCormick saw Plaintiff during the relevant period was in June of 2010, when Plaintiff had gastrointestinal problems and did not mention pain or limitation in her extremities. Moreover, although Plaintiff had identified functional problems with her hands in 2006, she never indicated pain, numbness, tingling, or functional limitations with her hands in visits with multiple doctors during the relevant period. She indicated in her Function Report that she had no problem with using her hands. The ALJ cited to this evidence in her decision and rejected Dr. McCormick's opinion on the ground that Dr. McCormick had not examined Plaintiff during the relevant period and that her opinion was inconsistent with the record. The Court reviews the ALJ's decision under the deferential substantial evidence standard of review, where the Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if any reasonable person would accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support denial. Here, a reasonable person would have found Plaintiff's failure to mention pain, numbness, tingling, or problems with her hands at any time during the relevant period, along with the lapse in time since Dr. McCormick's last evaluation of Plaintiff, to be adequate to reject her opinion. Plaintiff asserts no other allegation of error, so the Court concludes that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.
II. Procedural Background
On February 28, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB under Title II of the Act. (Tr. 103-107). On June 9, 2011, the Bureau of Disability Determination denied this application (Tr. 80-92), and Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on July 25, 2011. (Tr. 95-96). On May 11, 2012, an ALJ held a hearing at which Plaintiff-who was represented by an attorney-and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (Tr. 50-78). On June 4, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and not entitled to benefits. (Tr. 10-30). On July 5, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council (Tr. 7-9), which the Appeals Council denied on June 14, 2013, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the "final decision" of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-6).
On August 9, 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 November 19, 2013, the Commissioner filed an answer and administrative transcript of proceedings. (Docs. 9, 10). On January 2, 2014, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of her appeal ("Pl. Brief"). (Doc. 11). On January 31, 2014, Defendant filed a brief in response ("Def. Brief"). (Doc. 12). On April 29, 2014, the Court referred this case to the undersigned Magistrate Judge. Both parties consented to the referral for adjudication to the undersigned on June 13, 2014, and an order referring the case to the undersigned for adjudication was entered on June 13, 2014. (Doc. 15, 16).
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" to support a conclusion reached by the Commissioner, then the Commissioner's determination is supported by substantial evidence. 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 ("listing"); (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 ...