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Diperna v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 2, 2015

TODD DIPERNA, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


Donetta W. Ambrose Senior U.S. District Court Judge

I. Synopsis

Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Social Security Benefits (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act (“Act”). Plaintiff alleges disability beginning January 6, 2008. ECF No. 7-2, 1. After Plaintiff’s application was denied initially, he requested that his application be reviewed by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). ECF No. 10, 2. On November 30, 2012, Plaintiff testified at a hearing before an ALJ. ECF No. 7-2, 28-39. On March 22, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. Id. at 26. After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

Pending before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. [9] (Plaintiff) and [13] (Defendant). Both parties filed briefs in support of their motions. ECF Nos. [10] (Plaintiff) and [14] (Defendant). Plaintiff also filed a Reply at ECF No. [17]. The issues are now ripe for review. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, Defendant’s Motion [13] is denied and Plaintiff’s motion [9] is granted to the extent that the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the Opinion that follows.

II. Legal Analysis

A. Standard of Review

The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner’s decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “[m]ore than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner’s findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). While the ALJ’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

To be eligible for social security benefits, a plaintiff must demonstrate that she cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A).

The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(b). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant’s impairments prevent him from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. A Claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her previous employment (Steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (Step 5). Id.

A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

B. Plaintiff’s Motion

1. The Medical Evidence

Plaintiff primarily argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion of the Commissioner’s examining psychologist, Stephen Perconte, Ph.D. ECF No. 10, 2-11. Dr. Perconte performed a consultative psychological evaluation at the request of the Commissioner in September 2011. ECF No. 7-7, 39-48 (Exhibit B4F) & 55-57 (Exhibit B7F). Dr. Perconte diagnosed Plaintiff as having (i) schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type and (ii) alcohol abuse by history. ECF No. 7-2, 22; ECF No. 7-7, 263. As the ALJ noted, “Dr. Perconte found no limitation in areas of understanding and remembering[] short, simple instructions or in carrying out short, simple[] instructions, and moderate limitation making judgments on simple work-related decisions, interacting with the public, and responding appropriately to changes in a routine work setting, . . . .” ECF No. 7-2, 22. The ALJ gave the report “little weight to the effect that the claimant is markedly limited in areas of interacting with supervisors and co-workers and responding appropriately to work pressures in a usual work setting (Exhibit B-7F)” because he found Dr. Perconte’s assessment was based primarily on Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, which the ALJ found not entirely credible and not supported by the record as a whole. ECF No. 7-2, 22 & 24.

Regardless of the source, an ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion received, state the weight he assigns the opinion, and articulate his reasons. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c). Generally, an ALJ will give more weight to the opinion of a source who has examined the claimant than to a non-examining source. Id. ยงยง 404.1527(c)(1), 416.927(c)(1). When weighing medical opinions, an ALJ should consider all of the following factors: the examining relationship, the treatment relationship (the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examinations as well as the nature and extent of the treatment relationship), supportability, ...

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