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Shaffer v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2014

DONALD SHAFFER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT

GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 3 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 disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 11) 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 his pending application for benefits on March 25, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of November 29, 2010, (subsequently amended to March 31, 2011), due to tinnitus and knee arthritis.[1] Plaintiffs application was denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on March 9, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On May 16, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On May 30, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 62 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a person of advanced age under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §404.1563(e). Plaintiff has a high school education and past relevant work experience as a diesel mechanic and labor union staff representative, but he has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his 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 found that although the medical evidence establishes that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of bilateral knee arthritis with bilateral knee replacement, those impairments, alone or in combination with his non-severe impairments, [2] do not meet or 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 sedentary work but is limited to occasional postural maneuvers, such as balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and climbing ramps and stairs, and must avoid climbing ladders, ropes and scaffolds. (R. 16). Based on the vocational expert's description of plaintiff's past relevant work of labor union staff representative, as well as the description of that position set forth in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of performing his past relevant work, and therefore concluded that he 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. §423(d)(l)(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).

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. §404.1520(a)(4). 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). As already noted, in this case the ALJ found plaintiff to be not disabled at step 4 of the sequential evaluation process.

Here, plaintiff essentially raises three challenges to the ALJ's determination of not disabled: (1) the ALJ failed to present a hypothetical question to the vocational expert inquiring as to whether plaintiff can perform his past relevant work in light of the postural limitations found by the ALJ in his residual functional capacity finding; (2) the ALJ failed to consider the effect of all of plaintiff's impairments, both severe and not severe, in assessing plaintiffs residual functional capacity; and, (3) the ALJ failed to consider plaintiffs long work history in assessing plaintiffs credibility. 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 in determining that plaintiff can perform his past relevant work the ALJ violated both SSR 96-9p and the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Sykes v. Apfel , 228 F.3d 259 (3d Cir. 2000), by not asking the vocational expert a hypothetical question incorporating the non-exertional limitations found by the ALJ in his residual functional capacity finding. The government counters by arguing that SSR 96-9p and Sykes apply only at step 5 of the sequential evaluation process and that the ALJ was not required to ask a hypothetical question to the vocational expert in this case because the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled at step 4. Upon due consideration of the parties' briefs and the relevant law, the court agrees with the government that the ALJ is not required to ask a hypothetical at step 4, and further finds that the ALJ's step 4 finding that plaintiff can perform his past relevant work is supported by substantial evidence.

At step 4 of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ is required to consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity[4] to perform his past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(e). If the claimant cannot perform his past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to step 5, where the ALJ must show that there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy which the claimant can perform consistent with his medical impairments, age, education, past work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520(f).

In this case, the ALJ found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work with, inter alia, occasional postural maneuvers. (R. 16). The ALJ then found at step 4 that plaintiff is capable of performing his past relevant work as a labor union staff representative because that work "does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [his] residual functional capacity finding." (R. 19). In making this finding the ALJ relied on testimony from the vocational expert regarding the physical and mental demands of plaintiffs job as a labor union staff representative and the description of that job in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (R. 19).

Plaintiff argues, however, that the ALJ was not permitted to make the determination at step 4 that plaintiff can perform his past relevant work without explicitly asking the vocational expert a hypothetical question incorporating a limitation to occasional postural maneuvers as found in the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding. In support, plaintiff relies on Sykes and SSR 96-9p. However, the government is correct that ...


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