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Brass v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 30, 2015

DONALD BRASS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT

GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT

AND NOW, this 30th day of March, 2015, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment relating to plaintiff's request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 11) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 9) be, and the same hereby is, denied.

As the fact finder, 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 his pending applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on December 27, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of December 10, 2010, due to Graves disease, [1] high blood pressure, migraines and knee problems. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially. At plaintiff's request an ALJ held a hearing on July 11, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On July 26, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On September 11, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 34 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a younger person under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c) and 416.963(c). He has at least a high school education and has past relevant work experience as a store laborer, floor waxer, material handler, industrial truck operator, product machine tender, hoisting laborer and security guard, but he has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date.

After reviewing plaintiff's 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 impatient of thyroid disorder, Graves disease, knee and back pain, hypertension, depression and anxiety, 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 sedentary exertional level but with numerous restrictions necessary to accommodate his physical and mental impairments. (R. 26).[2] Taking into account these restrictions, a vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff can perform based upon his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including document preparer, assembler and escort vehicle driver. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that, although plaintiff cannot perform any of his past relevant work, he is capable of making an adjustment to numerous jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff 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.A. § 8423(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. § 8423(d)(2)(A) 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[3] 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. 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 three challenges to the ALJ's determination that plaintiff is not disabled: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence; (2) the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding failed to account for all of plaintiff's work-related mental limitations; and, (3) the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding failed to account for any limitations arising from plaintiff's Graves disease. Upon review, the court is satisfied that the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding is supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiff's first argument is that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence. Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in rejecting the opinion of consultative psychologist Dr. Steven Pacella, who examined plaintiff on June 15, 2011, and instead in accepting the opinion of the state agency reviewing psychologist Dr. John Rohar. The court finds no error in the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence.

The rules by which the ALJ is to evaluate the medical evidence are well-established under the Social Security Regulations and the law of this circuit. Opinions of treating physicians are entitled to substantial, and at times even controlling, weight. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2) and 416.927(c)(2); Fargnoli v. Massana, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). Where a treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of an impairment is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, it will be given controlling weight. Id . However, when a treating source's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, it is to be evaluated and weighed under the same standards applied to all other medical opinions, taking into account numerous factors, including the opinion's supportability, consistency and specialization. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) and 416.927(c). Importantly, the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, on the issue of what an individual's residual functional capacity is or on the ultimate determination of disability never is entitled to special significance. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) and 416.927(d); SSR 96-5p.

Here, the ALJ adhered to the foregoing standards in evaluating the medical evidence. The ALJ specifically addressed the consultative report from Dr. Pacella and adequately explained why he was assigning"little weight." to the opinion insofar as it indicated marked limitations in several areas of mental functioning[4] and "no weight" insofar as it suggested an inability to perform all work activity. (R.29). In particular, the ALJ noted that the medical evidence does not show the level of ...


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