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Morris v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 22, 2015

ROBERT WILSON MORRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying his application for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff protectively filed his application on November 24, 2010, alleging he was disabled beginning November 12, 2010. ECF No. 7-2, 13. After Plaintiff's application was denied initially, he filed a written request to have his application reviewed by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. On July 24, 2012, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ. Id. On August 3, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Id. at 30. 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 Concise Statement of Material Facts, ECF No. [10] and a Reply Brief, 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). While 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 he 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. Whether the ALJ Erred in his Analysis of Plaintiff's Past Relevant Work

Plaintiff submits that the ALJ erred in his consideration of Plaintiff's past relevant work because his past work was in a sheltered environment. ECF No. 11, 3. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ did not take into account that Plaintiff worked with special accommodation (no lifting) when he relied on the vocational expert's ("VE") testimony that Plaintiff's past work was performed at the sedentary level. Id. at 3-4.

At Step 4, an ALJ must determine a claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e), and then consider whether the claimant retains the RFC to perform his past relevant work. Id. at § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Past relevant work is work done by the claimant within the last 15 years, that was substantial gainful activity ("SGA"), and that lasted long enough such that the claimant could learn to do the work. Id. at § 404.1560(b)(1). In determining whether a claimant can do his past relevant work, an ALJ must decide whether a person with the claimant's physical and mental limitations "can meet the demands of the claimant's previous work, either as the claimant actually performed it or as generally performed in the national economy." Id. at § 404.1560(b)(2); see also Soc. Sec. Reg. 82-61 & 82-62. In addition to the medical evidence of record and information provided by the claimant about his past work and the limiting effect of any impairments, an ALJ may also rely on the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE") and job descriptions as found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") to see whether the claimant retains the ability to perform the job as "ordinarily required by employers throughout the national economy." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1560(b)(2); Soc. Sec. Reg. 82-61. See also Garibay v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 336 Fed.Appx. 152, 158-60 (3d Cir. 2009) (affirming ALJ determination where substantial evidence supported the finding that claimant could perform past work as generally required by employers throughout the economy). Further, even though a

former job performed in by the claimant may have involved functional demands and job duties significantly in excess of those generally required for the job by other employers throughout the national economy... if the claimant cannot perform the excessive functional demands and/or job duties actually required in the former job but can perform the functional demands and job duties as ...

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