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Upshur v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2015

PAMELA UPSHUR, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION AND ORDER

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Plaintiff filed a pro se application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging disability as of January 1, 2011. Her claim rested, initially, on physical impairments, including problems with her right wrist. The claim was denied initially, and, after Plaintiff obtained counsel, upon hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). After she obtained counsel, Plaintiff also alleged mental impairments, including depression. Plaintiff now appeals the Commissioner's decision. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reason, Plaintiff's Motion will be granted, and Defendant's denied. This matter will be remanded for further proceedings.

OPINION

I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.

A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196-97, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, "I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently." Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).

II. PLAINTIFF'S MOTION

A. Mental Impairments

First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to address all of Plaintiff's impairments. In particular, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ improperly focused on her physical impairments, rather than her mental impairments.

The ALJ thoroughly considered Plaintiff's mental impairments in reaching his decision. He considered the records from Mercy Behavioral Health, and in fact determined that Plaintiff had severe impairments of depressive disorder and bereavement. Despite Plaintiff's initial failure to claim mental impairments, the ALJ accepted and considered all pertinent records submitted after the hearing, and elicited testimony regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments. There is no indication that the ALJ purposefully or improperly attempted to focus on Plaintiff's physical ailments; to the contrary, the ALJ acknowledged an evidentiary difficulty posed by Plaintiff's alleged date of onset, but permitted Plaintiff to pursue her arguments. I find no error in that regard.

B. Consultative Exam

Next, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should, as requested, have ordered a consultative exam regarding her mental impairments.

An "ALJs duty to develop the record does not require a consultative examination unless the claimant establishes that such an examination is necessary to enable the ALJ to make the disability determination." Thompson v. Halter, 45 F.Appx. 146, 149 (3d Cir. 2002). The decision to order such an examination is within the sound discretion of the ALJ. Mruk v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108527, **18-19 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 7, 2014). Here, the record was sufficient, and does not establish that a consultative psychiatric exam was necessary. Plaintiff submitted records from Mercy Behavioral Health, none of which contained ...


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