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Lados v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2014

STEF ANIE LADOS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT

GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 30th day 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 plaintiffs application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 12) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Document No.9) 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). Importantly, 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 SSI on April 26, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of April 26, 2010, due to back problems and panic attacks. Plaintiffs application was denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on January 24, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On March 22, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On July 15, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 47 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). Plaintiff has at least a high school education, and has past relevant work experience as a caregiver/home health aide, but she has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date.

After reviewing plaintiffs medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ initially found that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of positive HLA-B27, [1] cervical spine degenerative disc disease, depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and a panic disorder, non-agoraphobic. (R.29). However, the ALJ determined that those impairments, alone or in combination, do not 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 perform light work with numerous restrictions to accommodate the limiting effects of her physical and mental impairments.[2] A vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff can perform based upon her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including fruit cutter, sorter of agricultural products, nut sorter and cuff folder. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that although plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work, she is capable of making an adjustment to work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is not disabled.

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)(8).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process[3] for determining whether a claimant is under a disability. 20 C.F.R. §416.920; Newell v. Commissioner of Social Security , 347 F.3d 541, 545 (3d Cir. 2003). lf 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 three challenges to the ALJ's findings: (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; (2) the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding fails to account for all of plaintiff's limitations supported by the record; and, (3) the ALJ failed to develop the record. 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.

Plaintiff's 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 the ALJ erred in finding that she does not meet the "c" criteria of Listing 12.06 for anxiety-related disorders. This argument is without merit.

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 of age, 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). "lf 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).

Here, the ALJ identified Listing 12.06 as the relevant listing for plaintiff's anxiety disorder and adequately explained why plaintiff does not meet or equal that Listing.[4] Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff meets neither the "B" nor "C" criteria of that Listing.[5] (R. 31-32). Because Listing 12.06 provides that the "required level of severity... is met [only] when both the A and B criteria are satisfied, or when the C criteria are ...


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