United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
Kenneth R. Hiller, Esq. Law Offices of Kenneth Hiller PLLC. Amherst, NY.
Michael Colville Assistant U.S. Attorney Pittsburgh, P A.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT
GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.
AND NOW, this 25 day 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 applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Document No. 11) be, and the same hereby is, granted, and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 14) be, and the same hereby is, denied. The Commissioner's decision of April 2, 2012, will be vacated and this case will be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with this opinion pursuant to sentence 4 of 42 U.S.C. §405(g).
When the Commissioner determines that a claimant is not "disabled" within the meaning of the Act, the findings leading to such a conclusion must be based upon substantial evidence. "Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.'" Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).
Despite the deference to administrative decisions required by this standard, reviewing courts "retain a responsibility to scrutinize the entire record and to reverse or remand if the [Commissioner's] decision is not supported by substantial evidence.'" Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981)). In evaluating whether substantial evidence supports an ALJ's findings, "leniency [should] be shown in establishing the claimant's disability, and... the [Commissioner's] responsibility to rebut it [should] be strictly construed....'" Reefer v. Barnhart, 326 F.3d 376, 379 (3d Cir. 2003) (quoting Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979)).
Plaintiff protectively filed his pending applications for DIB and SSI on January 27, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of May 5, 2009, due to emphysema and arthritis of the lower back and hip. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on January 11, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On April 2, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On August 27, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
Plaintiff was 53 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a person closely approaching advanced age under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1563(d) and 416.963(d). He has at least a high school education and has past relevant work experience as an electrician/foreman and laminator, but he has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. 
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 ofrestrictive lung diseases, lumbago, degenerative disc disease, alcohol dependence not otherwise specified, depressive disorder, cervical degenerative disc disease and bilateral hip degenerative disease, he does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals 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 perform light work but with numerous restrictions designed to accommodate the limiting effects of his impairments, including, inter alia, "the option to sit/stand every 10-15 minutes." A vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff can perform based upon his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including cashier, inspector and small parts assembler. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that although plaintiff cannot perform his past relevant work, he is capable of making an adjustment to work which exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is not disabled.
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)(1)(A) and 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. §§423(d)(I)(B) and 1382c(a)(3)(B).
The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520 and 416.920; Newell v. Commissioner of Social Security, 347 F.3d 541, 545 (3d Cir. 2003). 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 decision: (l) that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence; and, (2) that, after having identified a "conflict" between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"), the ALJ failed to adequately resolve that conflict in violation of SSR 00-4p. After reviewing the ALJ's decision and the record, the court is satisfied that the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence is supported by substantial evidence. Nevertheless, pursuant to SSR 00-4p, the court finds that this case must be remanded to the Commissioner for additional proceedings in order for the ALJ to inquire into, and to obtain a reasonable explanation for, the conflict between the vocational expert's testimony and the DOT that the ALJ himself identified.
Plaintiffs first argument is that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence. Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ impermissibly gave greater weight to the opinion of Dr. Abu Ali, the state agency reviewing physician, than to the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. ...