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Greisinger v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 2, 2015

MARC DAVID GREISINGER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

I. Synopsis

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") and Social Security Benefits ("SSI") pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff protectively filed his application on February 14, 2011, alleging he was disabled beginning August 1, 2009. ECF No. 5-2, 15. 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 September 25, 2012, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ. Id. On November 16, 2012, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Id. at 27. After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. [6] (Plaintiff) and [8] (Defendant). Both parties filed briefs in support of their motions. ECF Nos. [7] (Plaintiff) and [9] Defendant. Plaintiff also filed a Reply Brief. ECF No. [10]. 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) and 416.920(b). 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, 416.920. 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 Determining Plaintiff's Severe Impairments

At Step Two of the sequential analysis, the ALJ found Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: obesity, low back pain, and depression. ECF No. 5-2, 17. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred because he also has the following severe impairments: a heart condition and uncontrolled hypertension, anxiety disorder, and psychotic disorder. ECF No. 7, 13-15.

At Step Two of the analysis, an ALJ must determine whether a claimant has a medically determinable impairment that is severe or a combination of impairments that is severe. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a). An impairment is not severe if it does not significantly limit one's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521(a), 416.920(c). If a claimant is found to have a severe impairment, then the ALJ proceeds to the next step. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a), 416.920(a); see also Newell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir. 2003).

Although the ALJ did not find Plaintiff's heart condition, anxiety, and psychotic disorder to be severe, she did find other impairments severe at Step Two. ECF No. 5-2, 17-19. Thus, Plaintiff was not denied benefits at Step Two. Rather, the ALJ proceeded beyond Step Two and considered the Plaintiff's severe and non-severe impairments in the evaluation process. ECF No. 5-2, 20 ("In making this [RFC] finding, I have considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence....") and 20-25 (ALJ developed an RFC that captured any credible physical limitations resulting from Plaintiff's heart condition and any credible mental restrictions stemming from his anxiety). Thus, I agree with Defendant that any purported error was harmless such that a remand on this basis is not warranted. See Salles v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 144-45 n.2 (3d Cir. 2007) ("Because the ALJ found in [claimant's] favor at Step Two, even if he had erroneously concluded that some of her other ...


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