United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania
Donetta W. Ambrose, United States Senior District Judge.
Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 12 and 15). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 13 and 16). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 12) and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 15).
Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her applications for supplemental security income ("SSI") and disability insurance income ("DIB") pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act"). Plaintiff filed her applications alleging she had been disabled since May 26, 2010. (ECF No. 9-7, pp. 5, 12). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Natalie Appetta, held a hearing on December 16, 2013. (ECF No. 9-3, pp. 2-45). On January 9, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 9-2, pp. 24-42).
After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 12 and 15). The issues are now ripe for 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. 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). 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, however, 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 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. '423(d)(1)(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. '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., appx. 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 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. Plaintiff's Mental Impairments
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiff's mental impairments in two respects: 1) by improperly discounting Plaintiff's depression as "situational;" and 2) in failing to adequately address Plaintiff's global assessment of functions ("GAF") scores. (ECF No. 13, pp. 2-7). With regard to the ALJ characterizing Plaintiff's depression as "situational, " I find the ALJ's assessment is reasonable and based on substantial evidence. (ECF No. 9-2, pp. 34-36). For example, the ALJ noted that her depression was "generally related to grief due to the death of her husband." (ECF No. 9-2, p. 35). The ALJ continued:
Furthermore, notes from both examinations indicated that her mental status evaluations were essentially normal. While notes from the claimant's November of 2011 psychological examination indicated that the claimant had some weepiness due to her husband's death, she maintained eye contact, and her speech was of normal pace and tone. Her thought processes were ...