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Robinson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

March 16, 2015


Karl E. Osterhout, Esq.,

Michael Colville Assistant U.S. Attorney


Gustave Diamond, United States District Judge

AND NOW, this 16th day of March, 2015, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment related to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 13) be, and the same hereby is, ; granted and plaintiffs 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). 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 protectively filed her pending application for benefits on August 11, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2010, due to fibromyalgia, high blood pressure, and neck, : back and hip problems. Plaintiffs application was denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on December 2, 2011, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and; testified. On December 27, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On August 2, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 57 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a person of advanced age under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §404.1563(e). She has a high school education and has past relevant work experience as a case worker for the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. In January of 2010, plaintiff retired from that position, testifying that it was a "regular" retirement and was not a sick-leave or disability retirement. (R. 33). Plaintiff i resumed working part-time as a support specialist for the elderly and disabled in April of 2010 and continued doing so until October of 2011. However, because she did not earn enough from this part-time work for it to qualify as substantial gainful activity under the Act, the ALJ found that plaintiff has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date of January 10, 2010.

After reviewing plaintiffs medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ found that although the medical evidence establishes that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine, those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed at Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P.

The ALJ also found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to engage in work at the light exertional level but with numerous restrictions necessary to accommodate her physical impairments. (R. 13).[1] Taking into account these restrictions, a vocational expert testified that, given plaintiffs age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, she would be able to perform her past relevant work as a caseworker. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work and concluded that she is not disabled under the Act.

The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(l)(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. §423(d)(2)(A).

The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability.[2] 20 C.F.R. §404.1520. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the claim need not be reviewed further. Id.; see Barnhart v. Thomas, 124 S.Ct. 376 (2003).

Here, plaintiff raises two challenges to the ALJ's determination that plaintiff is not disabled: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence in concluding that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity for light work with restrictions; and, (2) the ALJ ignored j plaintiffs 34-year prior work history in evaluating her credibility. Upon review, the court is satisfied that the ALJ properly evaluated the evidence and that all of the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiffs first argument is that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence.[3]Specifically, plaintiff contends that, in finding that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with restrictions, the ALJ improperly gave more credence to the report of a one-time consultative examiner while rejecting or ignoring the opinions of plaintiff's treating physicians and the state agency reviewing physician. The crux of plaintiff's argument is that the opinions from her treating physicians, supported by the state agency reviewer, "at most, support a finding that [plaintiff] can perform sedentary work; if so, she is unable to perform her past relevant work .... " Plaintiff's Brief in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. # 1 0) at 6 (emphasis added).

Even accepting solely for the sake of argument, and without so finding, that plaintiff is correct, [4] and that a proper evaluation of the medical evidence in this case would support a finding that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity only for sedentary work with the i restrictions otherwise found by the ALJ, plaintiffs entire argument nevertheless is undermined by the fact that the vocational expert testified that plaintiffs past relevant work as a case worker in fact would be classified as sedentary, (R. 53), and further testified explicitly that, even if plaintiff is limited to sedentary work with the enumerated restrictions, she still would be able to perform that past relevant work. (R. 54).

It is axiomatic that residual functional capacity is defined as the most an individual still can do in a work setting despite the limitations caused by her impairments. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 40 (3d Cir. 2001); 20 C.F.R. §404, 1545(a). Thus, even assuming that the ALJ incorrectly found, based on the medical evidence, that plaintiff could perform light work with the enumerated restrictions, that finding represents the most plaintiff can do. Because her past relevant work was sedentary, and the vocational expert testified she could perform that sedentary job with the enumerated restrictions, any error that the ALJ may have;committed in this case in evaluating the medical evidence and finding plaintiff capable of performing light work would be immaterial to the ultimate finding of not disabled at step four of the sequential evaluation process.

Plaintiffs second argument is that the ALJ's credibility determination is flawed because j he failed to consider plaintiffs long work history. This argument is unpersuasive. While plaintiff is correct that the testimony of a claimant with a long, productive work history is to be:given substantial credibility concerning her work-related limitations, that is so only when those limitations are supported by competent medical evidence. See Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 409 (3d Cir. 1979). And, although a claimant's work history is one of many factors the ALJ is to consider in assessing an individual's subjective complaints, 20 C.F.R. §404.1529(c)(3), the ALJ is not required to equate a long work history with credibility. See Christl v. Astrue, 2008 WL 4425817, * 12 (W.D.Pa. Sept. 30, 2008).

Thus, a claimant's work history alone is not dispositive of credibility. Here, plaintiff testified at the hearing about her lengthy work history as a case worker, as well as her part-time work as a support specialist (R. 30-37), and the ALJ referred to it in his decision. (R. 18-19; 21). However, in assessing plaintiffs credibility the ALJ considered the record as a whole, and, ; based on his review of all of the evidence, including the medical evidence, he reasonably concluded that plaintiffs statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of her symptoms were not entirely credible. (R. 19-20). Accordingly, plaintiffs work history in and of itself is insufficient to overcome the substantial evidence refuting plaintiffs allegations of debilitating limitations.

The court is satisfied that the ALJ properly evaluated plaintiffs allegations regarding her pain and limitations in accordance with the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §404.1529(c); see also SSR 96-7p.[5] It also is important to emphasize that the ALJ did not find plaintiffs subjective complaints entirely not credible. Rather, the decision makes clear that, to the extent plaintiffs allegations as to the limitations arising from her impairments are supported by the medical and other evidence, the ALJ accommodated those limitations in the residual functional capacity finding. Only to the extent that plaintiffs allegations are not so supported did the ALJ find them to be not credible.

The record demonstrates that the ALJ adhered to the appropriate standards in evaluating plaintiffs credibility and it is not this court's function to re-weigh the evidence and arrive at its; own credibility determination. Rather, this court must only determine whether the ALJ's credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence, and is satisfied that it is.

After carefully and methodically considering all of the medical evidence of record and plaintiffs testimony, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ's findings and conclusions are supported by substantial evidence and are not otherwise erroneous. Accordingly, the decision of the Commissioner must be affirmed.

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