United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
J. FREDERICK MOTZ, District Judge.
Pending before the Court are the parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 12). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 9 and 13). After careful consideration of each of those submissions, I am granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 12) and denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Docket No. 8).
On September 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act (the "Act"). (R. 144-52). In his application, he alleged a disability onset date of August 8, 2011. Id. His application was denied on February 21, 2013. (R. 94-98). An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on August 15, 2013. (R. 35-81). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing with counsel and testified on his own behalf. Id. A vocational expert ("VE") also testified at the hearing, in response to hypothetical questions posed by the ALJ. (R. 76-81). In a decision dated August 28, 2013, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and that Plaintiff was therefore not disabled under the Act. (R. 14-31). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, (R. 1-7), making the ALJ's opinion the final, reviewable decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then filed this action. (Docket No. 1).
II. LEGAL ANALYSIS
A. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In Social Security appeals, this Court determines whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. See Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence is "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. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). This Court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. See Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, this Court must uphold the ALJ's decision, even if this Court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. See Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). This Court must review the record as a whole in determining whether the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.
To be eligible for Social Security benefits, a claimant must demonstrate that he or 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. See 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).
Each ALJ employs a five-step sequential analysis when evaluating a claim of disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 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. The claimant carries the burden through the first four steps of the sequential evaluation, including the burden of establishing an inability to perform past relevant work. Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). If the claimant fulfills this burden, the Commissioner bears the burden of proof at step five to show that the claimant is capable of other substantial gainful activity. Id.
After reviewing the entire record, this Court may affirm, modify, or reverse the ALJ's decision. See Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).
B. WHETHER THE ALJ ERRED IN ASSESSING PLAINTIFF'S PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPAIRMENTS
The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except that he was limited to occasionally climbing ramps and stairs only; occasionally balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; cannot operate foot controls with his lower left extremity, must have ready access to a restroom, and is "limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, not performed in a fast-paced production environment, involving only simple, work-related decisions, and in general, relatively few workplace changes. Furthermore, he must avoid interaction with the general public and can tolerate no more than superficial interaction with supervisors and co-workers." (R. 21).
Despite the relatively significant mental health-related limitations in the RFC assessment, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not sufficiently consider his mental health impairments. Pl.'s Br. 19-28. Specifically, Plaintiff argues (1) that the ALJ should have found that Plaintiff met or medically equaled a mental health listing and (2) that Plaintiff is incapable, from a mental health perspective, of performing the tasks listed in the RFC assessment. Both arguments lack merit.
Plaintiff does not identify the Listing he contends has been met. Essentially, however, Plaintiff contends that he has marked limitations in the requisite "paragraph B criteria" applying to many of the mental health listings, including Listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09, which were expressly considered by the ALJ. However, in assessing Plaintiff to have mild restriction in activities of daily living, and moderate difficulties in the areas of social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace, the ALJ cited extensively to Plaintiff's testimony and to the opinion of the state agency psychologist, whose findings matched the ALJ's. (R. 19-20, 85-86, 89-90). Moreover, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had not required any intensive outpatient or inpatient mental health treatment, and was able to live independently. (R. 20). While Plaintiff has compiled excerpts from his mental health records that might suggest a ...