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Goodson v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 16, 2014

LORIE A. GOODSON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


DONETTA W. AMBROSE, District Judge.

I. Synopsis

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"). 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433. Plaintiff protectively filed her application on February 13, 2013 alleging she was disabled beginning September 30, 2012. ECF No. 6-2, 13. After Plaintiff's application was denied initially, she filed a written, timely request to have her application reviewed by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. On June 20, 2013, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ in Morgantown, West Virginia. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. On July 3, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act. Id. at 22. After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. [9] (Plaintiff) and [12] (Defendant). Both parties filed briefs in support of their motions. ECF Nos. [11] (Plaintiff) and [13] (Defendant). Plaintiff also filed a Statement of Facts, ECF No. [10] and a Reply. ECF No. [14]. 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 deny Plaintiff's motion and grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment.

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 social security benefits, 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. § 404.1520(a). 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. § 404.1520. 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). Id.

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. The ALJ's Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") Assessment

In this case, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform work activity with a medium level of physical exertion and limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks, with no production rate type of pace, and no more than occasional interaction with others. ECF No. 6-2, 18. This RFC incorporates the findings and limitations suggested by the State Agency consultative examiner. Id. at 20. Plaintiff objects to the ALJ's evaluation of her mental impairments. ECF No. 11, 1-2. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by failing to seek additional medical evidence-specifically, an opinion from an examining consultant-to assist him in determining whether Plaintiff's mental impairment can be expected to last for a continuous period of twelve months. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a). Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ impermissibly relied on his lay opinion of the medical evidence. ECF No. 11, 1-2.

RFC refers to the most a claimant can still do despite her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The assessment must be based upon all of the relevant evidence, including the medical records, medical source opinions, and the individual's subjective allegations and description of her own limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). A person's RFC is an administrative finding reserved for the ALJ, not a medical opinion to be rendered by a doctor. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(e)(1); see also S.S.R. 96-5p (instructing that RFC is an administrative finding not a medical issue); Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011).

Plaintiff relies on, inter alia, Gunder v. Astrue, Civ. No. 11-cv-00300, 2012 WL 511936, at *15 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 4, 2012) and the Gunder court's discussion of Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 29 (3d Cir. 1986), to assert that an ALJ must use some medical opinion evidence in formulating a claimant's RFC. ECF No. 11, 8-9. I disagree with Plaintiff's interpretation of Doak. Rather, I concur with Judge Bloch's discussion of Doak as stated in Doty v. Colvin, wherein he explained that "[in Doak, t]he Third Circuit did nothing more than make a substantial evidence finding in light of a limited record and did not purport to create a rule that an RFC determination must be based on a specific medical opinion, and subsequent Third Circuit case law confirms this understanding." Civ. No. 13-80-J, 2014 WL 29036, at *1 n.1 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 2, 2014). Contra Dumond v. Comm'r v. Soc. Sec., 875 F.Supp.2d 500, 509 (following the reasoning in Gunder ). Moreover, in Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec ., the Third Circuit rejected an argument similar to the one Plaintiff makes here-that the ALJ improperly based his RFC determination on his own lay opinion regarding the medical evidence. Chandler, 667 F.3d at 361-62. The Third Circuit found no error because an "ALJ is not precluded from reaching RFC ...

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