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Hallam v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

September 22, 2014

RONALD C. HALLAM, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

A. Tereasa Rerko, Esq. Quatrini Rafferty.

Paul Kovac Assistant U.S. Attorney.

MEMORANDUM JUDGMENT ORDER

Gustave Diamond United States District Judge.

AND NOW, this 22th day of September, 2014, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to plaintiff's request for review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act, IT IS ORDERED that the Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 17) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 11) be, and the same hereby is, denied.

As the factfinder, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") has an obligation to weigh all of the facts and evidence of record and may reject or discount any evidence if the ALJ explains the reasons for doing so. Plummer v. Apfel. 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court is bound by those findings, even if it would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) . Moreover, it is well settled that disability is not determined merely by the presence of impairments, but by the effect that those impairments have upon an individual's ability to perform substantial gainful activity. Jones v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 125, 129 (3d Cir. 1991). These well-established principles preclude a reversal or remand of the ALJ's decision here because the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings and conclusions.

Plaintiff filed his applications for DIB and SSI on September 1, 2010, alleging disability beginning on February 1, 2005, due to back and joint problems, anxiety, bipolar and sleep disorders and alcohol addiction. Plaintiff's applications were denied. At plaintiff's request, an ALJ held a hearing on November 15, 2011, at which he appeared and testified while represented by counsel. On January 27, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 29, 2 013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The instant action followed.

Plaintiff, who has a high school education, was 44 years old on his alleged disability onset date, and is classified as a younger individual under the regulations. 2 0 C.F.R. §§404.1563(c), 416.963(c). Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a carpenter and garage door installer, but he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time since his alleged onset date.

After reviewing plaintiff's medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act, The ALJ first found that the medical evidence established that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of status post bilateral knee replacement surgery, lumbosacral spondylosis, degenerative joint disease of the hips, obesity, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and alcohol dependence; however, those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 ("Appendix 1") .

The ALJ next found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with a number of additional limitations. Plaintiff is precluded from crouching, kneeling, crawling and climbing ladders, scaffolds and ropes and he is restricted to only occasional climbing of steps. In addition, he cannot be exposed to unprotected heights, and he requires a sit/stand option.[1] Finally, plaintiff is limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks and only simple work-related decisions (collectively, the "RFC Finding").

The ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform his past relevant work because it exceeds his residual functional capacity. However, based upon testimony by a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a small parts assembler, weigher/scales operator or inspector. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment that can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§423(d) (1) (A), 1382c(a) (3) (A) . The impairment or impairments must be so severe that the claimant "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 ..., " 42 U.S.C. §§423(d) (2) (A), 1382c(a) (3) (B) .

The Social Security Regulations delineate a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. The ALJ must assess: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether his impairment meets or equals the criteria listed in Appendix 1; (4) if not, whether the claimant's impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity.[2] 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id.

In this case, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step 3 by failing to find that his mental health impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments. Further, plaintiff claims the ALJ's step 5 finding that he retains the residual functional capacity to perform work that exists in the national economy is not supported by substantial evidence. For reasons explained below, these arguments are without merit.

Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's findings at step 3 of the sequential evaluation process. At step 3, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments. Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). The listings describe impairments that prevent an adult, regardless of age, education or work experience, from performing any gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1525(a), 416.925(a); Knepp v. Apfel, 204 F.3d 78, 85 (3d Cir. 2000). "If the impairment is ...


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