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Coates v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 24, 2014

COLLEEN ANN COATES, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

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") pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff filed her application on August 5, 2010 alleging she was disabled beginning March 31, 2003. ECF No. 7-2, 11. After Plaintiff's application was denied initially, she filed a written request to have her application reviewed by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. On August 1, 2012, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ. Id. On August 8, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Id. at 18. After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. [8] (Plaintiff) and [13] (Defendant). Both parties filed briefs in support of their motions. ECF Nos. [9] (Plaintiff) and [14] Defendant. 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 grant Plaintiff's motion, deny Defendant's motion for summary judgment, and remand this case to the Commissioner.

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 Erred in Evaluating the Medical Evidence

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ misrepresented Plaintiff's GAF rating as a 60, ignored other lower GAF scores, and failed to articulate the weight assigned to the medical opinions such that the ALJ's RFC fails to adequately account for all of Plaintiff's mental limitations. ECF No. 9, 7. I agree.

An ALJ is required to evaluate all relevant evidence in the record, including all of the medical opinions received. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 41 (3d Cir. 2001); 10 C.F.R. § 416.927(b). In so doing, an ALJ is required to give reasons for any evidence discounted or rejected such that the reviewing court can determine whether significant probative evidence was not credited or simply ignored. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999); Diaz v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 505-06 (3d Cir. 2009); Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 121 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981)). When evaluating medical opinions, an ALJ should consider whether there is a reasonable support for the opinion and whether the opinion is consistent with the other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c); SSR 96-2p. As a rule, ALJs are required to give treating physicians' opinions "great weight" where the opinions are supported by the medical evidence of record because "their opinions reflect expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time.'" Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing Newhouse v. Heckler, 733 F.2d 283, 286 (3d Cir. 1985)). If a medical opinion is well-supported but not consistent with the other substantial evidence in the record, it may not be given "controlling weight." SSR 96-2p.

Specifically, Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in his assessment of the "Social Security Administration (SSA) Examiners" Lawrence B. Haddad, Ph.D. and Monica Yeater, Psy. D, doctors who conducted consultative examinations of Plaintiff. Pl.'s Br. 7-15. Plaintiff argues the ALJ's statement that these medical assessments are "partially consistent with the medical record and have been given appropriate weight" is too vague and legally insufficient because the ALJ failed to explain which parts of the doctor's assessment he rejected and why. Pl.'s Br. 10-11; see ECF No. 7-2, 16. Although the ALJ stated that he incorporated Drs. Haddad and Yeater's limitations into his RFC, ECF No. 7-2, 16, I cannot conclude that the ALJ's RFC explicitly includes these limitations because the ALJ failed to precisely state which portions of the assessments contained in Exhibits 6F, 11F, 13F, 14F, and 15F he found partially consistent with the medical record and relied on and what he rejected. For example, I cannot assess why the ALJ's RFC does not account for Dr. ...


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