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Shaffer v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 6, 2015

TERRY L. SHAFFER, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

OPINION and ORDER OF COURT

Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge

SYNOPSIS

Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 11). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (Docket Nos. 9 and 12). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting in part and denying in part both motions for summary judgment.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. On or about July 1, 2010, Plaintiff applied for DIB, and on or about July 8, 2010, he applied for SSI. (R. 168, 172-178, 181-184, 203). In both applications, he alleged that since April 27, 2010, he had been disabled due to myocardial infarction, coronary artery disease, depression, bipolar disorder, ADD, and arthritis in his hands. (R. 219). His last date insured is December 31, 2014. (R. 34, 185-186). The state agency denied his claims initially, and he requested an administrative hearing. (R. 80-92). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Marty Pillion held a hearing on October 12, 2011, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. (R. 48-76). Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. (R. 66-76). In a decision dated November 14, 2011, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 32-42). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ’s determination by the Appeals Council, and, on April 25, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review. (R. 22-24). Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 8 and 11). The issues are now ripe for my review.

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 “more 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). Where 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, the plaintiff must demonstrate that he 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. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

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, 416.920. 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 his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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. WHETHER THE ALJ FAILED TO PROPERLY EVALUATE THE OPINIONS OF PLAINTIFF’S TREATING PHYSICIAN AND CARDIOLOGIST

The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including coronary artery disease with myocardial infarction status post stenting, mitral regurgitation, left ventricular dysfunction, asthma, status post right shoulder surgery with bursitis and tear, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorder, cognitive disorder, mix expressive/receptive disorder, non-specific white matter disease, and obesity. (R. 34). He further found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except that he was limited to: occasional stoop, balance, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs; periods of standing not to exceed 30 minutes at one time; no climbing ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; no exposure to weather, extreme heat or cold, wetness, humidity, dampness, or atmospheric conditions such as smoke, fumes, odors, gases, or poor ventilation; simple, routine, repetitive tasks and simple work related decisions; infrequent changes in work setting defined as no more than one per week; and occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the public. (R. ...


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