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O'Bryan v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

September 16, 2014

TIMOTHY P. O’BRYAN, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


David Stewart Cercone, United States District Judge.

I. Introduction

Plaintiff, Timothy P. O’Bryan (“Plaintiff” or “O’Bryan”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, Carolyn Colvin (“Commissioner” or “Colvin”) denying his application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI on December 1, 2010, alleging disability beginning August 1, 2008, due to degenerative disc disease with facet hypertrophy, lateral recess stenosis, neural foraminal narrowing, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and alcohol dependency. R. 11, 13. The application was initially denied on March 4, 2011, and Plaintiff timely requested a hearing. R. 98-102, 103.

A hearing was held on December 19, 2011, before Administrative Law Judge Margaret L. Knight (the “ALJ”), and a Vocational Expert (“VE”) and Plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, appeared and gave testimony. R. 23-81. The ALJ issued a written decision on January 27, 2012, finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act because he could perform the demands of a limited range of light work. R. 14. Plaintiff timely requested a review of the ALJ’s decision to the Appeals Council, which was denied on March 8, 2013, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision for judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405. R. 1-7. Plaintiff subsequently filed his appeal with this Court.

The record was developed fully at the administrative level and the parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment will be denied, the Commissioner’s motion for summary judgment will be granted and final judgment will be entered against Plaintiff and in favor of the Commissioner.

II. Statement of the Case

Plaintiff was born on December 25, 1987, which made him fifty-two (52) years old on the date the application was filed. R. 18. Plaintiff has a tenth grade education, and past relevant work as a forklift operator, sheet rock installer, construction worker and painter. R. 33-43. Plaintiff has a history of alcohol abuse. On September 29, 2010, Plaintiff went to the emergency room (the “ER”) of Westmoreland Hospital, where he was diagnosed with “acute intoxication” and “history of suicidal ideation” without attempt. R. 242-244. Plaintiff also presented with symptoms of depression associated with the state of the economy and chronic alcoholism. R. 242. Plaintiff admitted to a heavy alcohol intake, but stated that he was able to function reasonably well. R. 241. Further, Plaintiff admitted that he was not taking his psychiatric medications of Depakote, Buspar, and Zinc. R. 243. He was discharged the same day, given medications to take at home, and advised to follow-up with Steven Mills, M.D. (“Dr. Mills”) his primary care physician. R. 248-249.

Plaintiff was admitted for alcohol detoxification two (2) addition times in November of 2010, and left against medical advice during his second admission. R. 16. Plaintiff was admitted for drug and alcohol rehabilitation in December 2010, and again left against medical advice in February 2011. Id. In July of 2011, Plaintiff was admitted for treatment for alcohol dependence, and subsequently started living in a halfway house with medication management. Id.

Three (3) times between May and July of 2010, Plaintiff reported to the ER complaining of back pain. R. 277, 269, 266. On neurological examination, Plaintiff had no lower extremity weakness or sensory findings, normal muscle strength and tone, and his reflexes were equal and symmetrical. R. 271. Plaintiff had no trouble walking and demonstrated adequate range of motion. Id. On neurologic examination, Plaintiff was alert and oriented, and had no motor or sensory deficit. R.277.

On September 29, 2010, Plaintiff had an x-ray of his lumbar spine that showed that: (1) he had no acute fracture; (2) the vertebral bodies were well-aligned; and (3) there was disc space narrowing at each level, with osteophytes. R. 259. The impression was “degenerative changes throughout the lumbar spine as described”. Id. On December 2, 2011, Plaintiff established care with a new primary care physician, Jennifer Muhly, M.D. (“Dr. Muhly”). R. 307. Dr. Muhly referred Plaintiff for an MRI on December 7, 2011, which showed bulging discs at several levels of the lumbar spine, with no disc herniation. R. 315. Plaintiff’s physical examination was unremarkable for any neurological or musculoskeletal problems. R. 307-309.

The ALJ denied Plaintiff’s application for SSI benefits pursuant to a finding that although his ability to engage in substantial gainful activity is restricted by limitations resulting from impairments relating to degenerative disc disease with facet hypertrophy, lateral recess stenosis and neural foraminal narrowing, Plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform the demands of a limited range of light work that will accommodate his need for (1) no climbing steps, ropes, ladders or scaffolds; (2) occasional crouching; (3) no exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, or extreme cold; (4) walking no more than twenty (20) minutes; (5) limited to simple routine, repetitive tasks involving only simple work-related decisions and relatively few changes in workplace stings; and (6) only occasional interaction supervisors, incidental contact with co-workers and no interaction with the general public. R. 13-15. Because of Plaintiff’s treatment for alcohol addiction, the ALJ instructed the VE to consider that the individual was limited to occupations that did not involve the handling, sale, or preparation of alcoholic beverages R.74.

Given the parameters of the hypothetical questions, the VE found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his former jobs. Id. The VE testified, however, that alternative light, unskilled work existed that the hypothetical individual could perform, including the jobs of labeler/marker, laundry folder, hand packer, and inspector/checker R. 75-76. Plaintiff’s application for SSI was, therefore, denied.

III. Standard of Review

This Court’s review is plenary with respect to all questions of law. Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). With respect to factual issues, judicial review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner’s decision is “supported by substantial evidence.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 46 (3d Cir. 1994). The Court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-1191 (3d Cir. 1986). Congress has clearly expressed its intention that “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565, 108 S.Ct. 2541, 101 L.Ed.2d 490 (1988)(internal quotation marks omitted). As long as the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence, ...

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