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Mitchell v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 26, 2015

EUNICE L. MITCHELL,
v.
CAROLYN COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY

OPINION AND ORDER

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Plaintiff alleged disability since May 3, 2011, due to mental impairments, including polysubstance abuse and schizoaffective disorder. Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and upon hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The Appeals Council denied her request for review. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the following reasons, 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. Dr. Schiller

First, Plaintiff argues that, although the ALJ gave "significant weight" to the opinion of Dr. Schiller, a non-examining state agency psychologist, he failed to include certain of Dr. Schiller's limitations in the residual functional capacity ("RFC") assessment. Dr. Schiller, who completed the disability determination explanation at the initial level, opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited, inter alia, in interacting appropriately with the general public, accepting instructions and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and getting along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. The only social limitation included in the RFC was "no more than minimal contact with the public"; the RFC included no reference to supervisors or co-workers.

The ability to interact with the public, however, is not precisely the same as the ability to interact with supervisors and co-workers. See Nickens v. Colvin, No. 14-140 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 23, 2014); cf. Dye v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62285 (E.D. Tenn. Apr. 9, 2013). The distinction is reflected in RFC assessment forms, which typically ask providers to respond to three separate queries as to a claimant's ability to interact with co-workers, supervisors, and providers. While the ALJ is not required to accept all medical opinions in crafting the RFC, he must give some reason for discounting the evidence he rejects. Ritzer v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61675 (W.D. Pa. May 5, 2014). RFC assessments "must accurately convey... all of a claimant's credibly established limitations." Young v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 322 F.Appx. 189, 191 (3d Cir. 2009).

Defendant points out that the ALJ observed that Plaintiff worked at a food bank for eight hours a month (apparently a mandatory work detail to maintain her rent), and serves as vice president of her tenant council for her housing project, requiring her to attend monthly meetings (which, as Plaintiff testified, she does not always attend). These de minimis activities, the ALJ concluded, "indicate greater social functioning capabilities than otherwise indicated by Plaintiff at her hearing testimony." This does not constitute adequate explanation for declining to adopt Dr. Schiller's clearly expressed moderate limitations, despite assigning his opinion significant weight. See Sherman v. Astrue, 617 F.Supp.2d 384, 395 (W.D. Pa. 2008). Remand is justified in order for the ALJ to assess, or explain his assessment, of Dr. Schiller's social limitations that were omitted from the RFC.

B. Omitted Evidence

Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ ignored probative evidence of record, including fifteen global assessment of functioning ("GAF") scores and ...


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