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Hvisdak v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2014



GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 30th of September, 2014, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment relating to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 10) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Document No.8) 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). 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 protectively filed her pending application for supplemental security income on February 10, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2008, [1] due to depression, anxiety Asperger's syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Plaintiffs application was denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on May 3, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On May 24, 2012, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On June 20, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 25 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a younger person under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §416.963(c). She has at least a high school education but no past relevant work experience and she has not performed any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date[2]

After reviewing plaintiff's medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff, and plaintiffs case manager, Mary Winters, and a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ found that while plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of depression, anxiety and Asperger's syndrome, the medical evidence does not show that plaintiff's impairments, alone or in combination, meet or medically equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed at Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P.

The ALJ also found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to engage in work at all exertionallevels but that she is limited to jobs requiring routine, repetitive tasks, and only occasional interaction with the public, coworkers and supervisors. (R. 25). Taking into account these limiting effects, a vocational expert identified numerous categories ofjobs which plaintiff can perform based upon her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including hand packager, night cleaner and laundry worker. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of making an adjustment to numerous jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled under the Act.

The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 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. §1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability[3] 20 C.F.R. §416.920. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the claim need not be reviewed further. Id .; see Barnhart v. Thomas , 124 S.Ct. 376 (2003).

Here, plaintiff raises two challenges to the ALl's decision: (1) the ALJ erred at step 3 by finding that plaintiff does not have an impairment that meets or medically equals the criteria of any listed impairment; and, (2) the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff is not disabled because she is unable to perform any work activity on a full-time basis. Upon review, the court is satisfied that the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence and that all of the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiffs first argument is that the ALJ erred at step 3 by finding that plaintiff does not have an impairment, or combination of impairments, that meets or medically equals any of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 of the Regulations. Specifically, she argues that she meets the "B" criteria of both Listing 12.04 for affective disorders and Listing 12.06 for anxiety-related disorders. This argument is without merit as substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's step 3 finding.

At step 3, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment matches, or is equivalent to, one of the impairments listed in appendix 1 of the Regulations. Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration , 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). The listings describe impairments that prevent an adult, regardless ofage, education, or work experience, from performing any gainful activity. Knepp v. Apfel , 204 F.3d 78, 85 (3d Cir. 2000); 20 C.F.R. §416.920(d). "If the impairment is equivalent to a listed impairment then [the claimant] is per se disabled and no further analysis is necessary." Burnett , 220 F.3d at 119.

The ALJ has the burden to identify the relevant listed impairment that compares with the claimant's impairment and must "fully develop the record and explain his findings at step 3, including an analysis of whether and why [the claimant's]... impairments... are or are not equivalent in severity to one of the listed impairments." Id. at 120, n.2. However, the burden is on the claimant to present medical findings that show that his impairment matches or is equal in severity to a listed impairment. Williams v. Sullivan , 970 F.2d 1178, 1186 (3d Cir. 1992).

The ALJ in this case correctly identified Listings 12.04 and 12.06 as the relevant listings that compare with plaintiffs severe mental impairments. The required level of severity for either ofthose listings is met only when both the "A" and "B" criteria of that listing are satisfied, or when the "A" criteria and "C" criteria are met. 20 C.F.R., Part 404, SubpartP, Appendix 1, §§12.04 and 12.06. In this ...

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