United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
LORI D. BEACON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
OPINION and ORDER OF COURT SYNOPSIS
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, District Judge.
Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 11 and 13). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 12 and 14). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, Defendant's Motion (Docket No. 13) is granted and Plaintiff's Motion (Docket No. 11) is denied.
Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her application for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Plaintiff applied for SSI on or about January 12, 2011. (R. 57). In her application, she alleged that since April 1, 2006, she had been disabled due to depression and anxiety; bipolar disorder; panic disorder; crying spells; panic attacks; depressive disorder; scoliosis of the low back; chronic back pain; deterioration of the spine; claustrophobia; high blood pressure; high cholesterol; and difficulty sitting, standing, or walking for long periods. (R. 57-58). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Geoffrey Casher held a hearing on February 22, 2012, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 24-56). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id . A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. (R. 49-55). In a decision dated May 17, 2012, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 13-23). On September 23, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 1-3). Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.
The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 11 and 13). The issues are now ripe for my review.
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 "more 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. Peerages , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is "not merely a quantitative exercise." Gilliland v. Heckler , 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker , 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). "A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)." Id . 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, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.
To be eligible for social security benefits, the 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. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler , 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).
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 her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her 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. WHETHER THE ALJ ERRED BY FAILING TO EVALUATE ALL OF THE MEDICAL EVIDENCE AND BY FAILING TO GIVE THE OPINIONS OF PLAINTIFF'S TREATING PHYSICIAN CONTROLLING WEIGHT
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including chronic pain, major depressive disorder, panic disorder without agoraphobia, and anxiety. (R. 15). He further found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), except that she was limited to standing and walking up to six hours in an eight hour work day; occasional bending, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling, climbing ramps and stairs; and no climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. She further must avoid exposure to extreme cold, humidity, and wetness, and to dangerous conditions such as uneven heights and dangerous machinery. The RFC additionally limited Plaintiff to simple, routine tasks involving no more than simple, short instructions and simple work-related decisions with few workplace changes; one-two step procedures; no work at production rate pace with no fast pace assembly line, and occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. (R. 18). The ALJ ultimately concluded that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 22-23).
Plaintiff argues the ALJ's findings are deficient because he did not evaluate all of the evidence from her treating physicians, Dr. Derek Peske and Dr. Randall Orr, and because he failed to give those medical opinions controlling weight. Pl.'s Br. [ECF No. 12] at 9-14. After careful ...