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Umholtz v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

September 15, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.



I. Synopsis

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”)) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”). Plaintiff filed his application alleging he was disabled beginning February 4, 2011. ECF No. 8-2, 10. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on July 23, 2012 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Id. On August 28, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. ECF No. 8-2, 20. After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. [9] (Plaintiff) and [11] (Commissioner). Both parties filed briefs in support of their motions. ECF Nos. [10] (Plaintiff) and [12] (Commissioner). The issues are now ripe for review. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion as set forth below, I deny Plaintiff’s motion and grant Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.

II. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner’s decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “[m]ore than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner’s findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

To be eligible for supplemental security income (“SSI”), a plaintiff must demonstrate that she cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a 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 at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant’s impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. A Claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his previous employment (Steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (Step 5).

A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

B. Whether the ALJ Adequately Addressed Plaintiff’s Mental Impairments With Respect to Concentration, Persistence, and Pace

Plaintiff submits that the ALJ erred because he failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff’s mental limitations and alleges that the ALJ’s mental RFC does not properly account for Plaintiff’s limitations with respect to concentration, persistence, and pace. Pl.’s Br. 5-14. Plaintiff further alleges that because the ALJ’s hypothetical questions to the vocational expert (“VE”) did not accurately set forth all of Plaintiff’s individual impairments, the VE’s responses cannot be substantial evidence in support of the ALJ’s denial of benefits. Id.

The ALJ found “[w]ith regard to concentration, persistence or pace, the claimant has moderate difficulties . . . but [] he retains the ability to perform simple, repetitive, routine (i.e. unskilled) job tasks.” ECF No. 8-2, 15. He noted that Plaintiff’s self-reported activities of daily living “are consistent with an individual capable of performing simple, routine, repetitive job tasks.” Id. The ALJ noted that despite Plaintiff’s testimony that he “had difficulty with concentration and focus . . . [Plaintiff’s] testimony was responsive and coherent without apparent lapses of attention.” Id. Further, the ALJ recognized that Plaintiff had experienced no episodes of decomposition for an extended duration. Id. The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff’s mental impairment does not meet either of the “paragraph B” or “paragraph C” criteria such that he meets or medically equals a listed impairment in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 15-16. The ALJ properly supported these findings with substantial evidence in the record. See Id . (citing Exhibits B3E, B9F, 2E, & 6E).

Moreover, as the ALJ stated, the paragraph B limitations are “used to rate the severity of mental impairments at steps 2 and 3 . . . [and] the mental residual functional capacity assessment used at steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process requires a more detailed assessment by itemizing various functions contained in the broad categories found in paragraph B of the adult mental disorders listings in 12.00 of the Listing of Impairments (SSR 96-8p).” ECF No. 8-2, 15. After assessing Plaintiff’s degree of limitation according to the categories found in paragraph B of the adult mental disorders listing in 12.00 of the Listing of Impairments, the ALJ determined Plaintiff is limited to inter alia “simple, routine tasks involving no more than simple, short instructions, simple, work-related decisions with few work place changes (unskilled work), no work at production-rate pace, and occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors.” Id. at 16. In making his determination, the ALJ found Plaintiff’s “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of [his] symptoms [] not credible to the extent they are inconsistent with [the ALJ’s] residual functional capacity assessment.” Id. at 17. Discussing Plaintiff’s credibility regarding his mental limitations, the ALJ found that gaps in Plaintiff’s treatment for his mental impairments “suggest that [his] symptoms may not be as serious as alleged.” Id. at 18. The ALJ gave little weight to Plaintiff’s lower GAF scores, finding them to be “inconsistent with the totality of the evidence, including mental status examinations, which generally revealed a bright affect with normal speech and fair grooming.” Id. The ALJ also gave only “some weight” to the state agency physician and psychologist who ...

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