United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental social security income benefits, alleging disability due to various mental and physical impairments. Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and upon hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The Appeals Council denied his 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.
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
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in the following respects: 1) by not finding that Plaintiff met Listing 12.05C for intellectual disability; 2) by giving great weight to the state agency psychologist's opinions, then departing from those opinions in the residual functional capacity assessment ("RFC"); 3) by downplaying the limitations found by consulting examiners Drs. Assefa and Tavoularis; and 4) by failing to deal properly with the opinions of Dr. Leonida, Plaintiff's treating physician.
A. Listing 12.05C
I first address Plaintiff's contention that the ALJ improperly rejected the IQ score assigned by Dr. Lindsay Groves, and thus dealt improperly with Listing 12.05C. Dr. Groves, to whom Plaintiff was referred by his counsel, concluded that he had a full-scale IQ of 67. In her discussion, the ALJ noted Dr. Groves' statement that Plaintiff put forth little effort during the test administration. The ALJ neither deemed the score invalid, nor relied on this lack of effort to discredit the score. Instead, she stated that she gave the IQ result "little weight, " due to Plaintiff's level of functioning. Moreover, the IQ score was discussed at step three of the sequential analysis, and the ALJ's statement that Dr. Groves' findings were not valid appeared separately in connection with the ALJ's RFC findings. It appears that the latter discussion referred to the remainder of Dr. Groves' opinions, and did not constitute rejection of the IQ testing. The ALJ did not err in her treatment of Dr. Groves' IQ testing.
Moreover, in order to satisfy Listing 12.05C, Plaintiff must demonstrate, inter alia, that his mental retardation was initially manifested before age 22. Markle v. Barnhart, 324 F.3d 182, 187 (3d Cir. 2003). "Mental retardation" refers to "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning." Demacio v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40708, at **36-37 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 27, 2014). In turn, the phrase "deficits in adaptive functioning" refers to "inability to cope with the challenges of ordinary everyday life." Harper v. Colvin, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40511 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 27, 2014). In this case, Plaintiff does not point to evidence of mental retardation prior to age 22. Thus, even if the ALJ had erred in addressing the IQ score assigned by Dr. Groves, Plaintiff has not offered evidence that he meets other applicable requirements, and any such error was harmless.
B. Dr. Schiller
Next, I address Plaintiff's contentions regarding the state non-examining psychologist, Dr. Schiller. At the initial determination level, Dr. Schiller opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in several areas, including performing activities within a schedule and maintaining regular attendance and being punctual, in maintaining attention and concentration for extended periods, and in completing a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from ...