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Brooks v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 6, 2015



GUSTAVE DIAMOND, District Judge.

AND NOW, this 6th day of April, 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 plaintiffs application for supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 14) 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 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 his pending application for supplemental security income on March 3, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of September 29, 2010, due to, inter alia, anxiety and depression. Plaintiffs application was denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on September 19, 2012, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On October 19, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On November 19, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

Plaintiff was 39 years old at the time of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a younger person under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §416.963(c). He has at least a high school education. Plaintiff has no past relevant work experience and 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 of asthma, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, psychosis with depression, personality disorder and polysubstance abuse, [1] 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 medium exertional level but with numerous restrictions necessary to accommodate his mental impairments. (R. 17).[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 dishwasher, janitor and ground worker. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the AL] found that plaintiff is capable of making an adjustment to numerous jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the AL] 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.C. § 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. § 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. § 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 challenges the ALJ's evaluation of the medical evidence relating to plaintiffs mental impairments.[4] Specifically, she contends: (1) that the ALJ improperly gave "little weight" to the assessment of the consultative psychologist; (2) that the ALJ improperly gave "little weight" to the medical source statement of plaintiff's treating psychologist; and, (3) that the ALJ improperly credited the opinion of the state agency reviewing psychologist over those of the treating and consultative psychologists. Upon review, the court is satisfied that the ALJ properly evaluated the medical evidence and that her analysis is supported by substantial evidence in the record.

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. § 416.927(c)(2); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 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. § 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. § 416.927(d); SSR 96-5p.

Here, the ALl adhered to the foregoing standards in evaluating the medical evidence. First, the ALJ specifically addressed the consultative report from Dr. David Prybock and adequately explained why she was assigning "little weight" to the opinion insofar as it indicated marked limitations in several areas of mental functioning.[5] (R. 20). In making this determination the ALJ observed that Dr. Prybock's assessment was a "one-shot consultative examination and relied to a considerable degree upon [plaintiff s] statements during the interview." (Id.) Accordingly, "given the absence of greatly abnormal findings on mental status examination, " the ALJ concluded that Dr. Prybock's assessment "overstates the degree of limitation." (Id.).

The ALJ discussed Dr. Prybock's report in detail in her decision and the evidence supports her evaluation. (R. 19-20). In particular, she noted that plaintiff showed no visible signs of anxiety upon examination, that he was cooperative, that he denied experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, that his thought processes were intact, that he demonstrated a good general fund of information and good concentration on testing, and that he was fully oriented and his memory was intact. (R. 20-21; 181-185). She also discussed the treatment records from Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic Crisis Service which showed relatively normal findings on two separate mental status examinations in August and September of 2011. (R.20).

Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's evaluation of Dr. Prybock's opinion on two grounds. First, he argues that while the ALJ relied on "the absence of greatly abnormal findings" on the mental status examination, there were in fact significant abnormalities recorded by Dr. Prybock, including, inter alia, that plaintiff "exhibited psychomotor retardation", his speech was slowed, his thoughts were tangential and his thought productivity was sparse, his insight was limited, he demonstrated impaired social judgment by not readily ...

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