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Dillen v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 2, 2015



GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 2 nd day of March, 2015, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to plaintiff's request for review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Acting Commissioner") denying his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, IT IS ORDERED that the Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 11) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 9) be, and the same hereby is, denied.

As the factfinder, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") has an obligation to weigh all of the facts and evidence of record and may reject or discount any evidence if the ALJ explains the reasons for doing so. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court is bound by those findings, even if it would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). Moreover, it is well settled that disability is not determined merely by the presence of impairments, but by the effect that those impairments have upon an individual's ability to perform substantial gainful activity. Jones v. Sullivan, 954 F.2d 125, 129 (3d Cir. 1991). These well-established principles preclude a reversal or remand of the ALJ's decision here because the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings and conclusions.

Plaintiff filed his SSI application on March 7, 2011, alleging disability due to depression, anxiety, anger issues and neck surgery from a gunshot wound. Plaintiff's application was denied. At plaintiff's request, an ALJ held a hearing on June 5, 2012, at which he appeared and testified while represented by counsel. On June 13, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on October 15, 2013, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The instant action followed.

Plaintiff, who has an eighth-grade education, was 40 years old when he applied for SSI, and is classified as a younger individual under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §416.963(c). Plaintiff has past relevant work experience as a temporary laborer, but he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time since filing his application.

After reviewing plaintiff's medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Although the medical evidence established that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of a back disorder, a neck disorder, major depressive disorder, a history of schizophrenia and a history of substance abuse, those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 ("Appendix 1").

The ALJ found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with a number of additional nonexertional limitations. Plaintiff is limited to simple and repetitive work that involves only routine work processes and settings. He also is limited to work that is not high stress, meaning that it does not involve high quotas or close attention to quality production standards. In addition, plaintiff is restricted from working in a loud noise environment. Finally, plaintiff is precluded from team work, and he limited to work that does not involve contact with the general public (collectively, the "RFC Finding").

Based upon testimony by a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's vocational factors and residual functional capacity do not permit him to perform his past relevant work. However, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a cleaner (housekeeper), press operator and night patrol. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment that can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment or impairments must be so severe that the claimant "is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy...." 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B).

The Social Security Regulations delineate a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. The ALJ must assess: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether his impairment meets or equals the criteria listed in Appendix 1; (4) if not, whether the claimant's impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity.[1] 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4). If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id.

In this case, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step 5 because he gave inadequate weight to the opinion of plaintiff's treating physicians, and he assigned too much weight to the opinion of a state agency physician. The court finds that plaintiff's arguments are without merit.[2]

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not properly weigh the respective opinion of his treating physician, Dr. Nesbit, and that of his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Yohe. A treating physician's opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence of record. 20 C.F.R. §416.927(c) (2). Under this standard, the ALJ properly determined that each doctor's opinion should be given some weight, but not controlling weight.[3] (R. 25, 26).

Plaintiff first complains that the ALJ failed to give adequate weight to Dr. Nesbitt's check mark answers on a font' report that plaintiff likely would miss, or be unable to complete, work one day per week. (R. 307). Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have given controlling weight to Dr. Nesbitt's opinion on that matter, and therefore should have determined that he is disabled.

The ALJ gave some weight to Dr. Nesbitt's assessment of plaintiff's physical capabilities, but found little support in the record for Dr. Nesbitt's conclusion that plaintiff likely would miss one day of work per week. (R. 25). As the ALJ explained, plaintiff's unremarkable physical examinations ...

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