United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh.
ELIZABETH A. NEAL, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
Pending before the court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 10 and 13). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 12 and 14). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 13).
Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") pursuant to the Social Security Act ("Act"). Plaintiff filed her applications alleging she had been disabled since September 20, 2011. (ECF No. 4-5, pp. 2, 13). Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), Lawrence J. Neary, held a video hearing on January 30, 2013. (ECF No. 9-2, pp. 36-74). On April 11, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 4-2, pp. 20-31).
After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (Docket Nos. 10 and 13). The issues are now ripe for 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. §423(d)(1)(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(a). 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., appx. 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. 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. Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC")
Essentially, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly determined Plaintiff's RFC. (ECF No. 12, pp. 3-6). To that end, Plaintiff raises two arguments. First, Plaintiff argues that ALJ erred in failing to explain why he assessed her with an RFC of medium work when her treating doctor, Dr. Baldwin, stated that Plaintiff could not do any work involving heavy machinery, heavy lifting or swimming. Id. at pp. 3-5. In this case, the ALJ specifically stated that he afforded "Dr. Baldwin's opinion that the claimant could work so long as she avoided heavy machinery, heavy lifting, and swimming" great weight. (ECF No. 4-2, p. 25). Yet, Plaintiff argues, the ALJ did not accommodate the "heavy lifting" restriction in determining Plaintiff's RFC. (ECF No. 12, pp. 4-5). After a review of the record, I disagree. To begin with, Dr. Baldwin never defines "heavy lifting." (ECF No. 4-10, p. 4). The ALJ restricted Plaintiff to medium work. Medium work is defined as lifting no more than 50 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1567(c), 416.967(c); SSR 83-10. "Being able to do frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 25 pounds is often more critical than being able to lift up to 50 pounds at a time." SSR 83-10. Contrary to Plaintiff's position, this definition can be read to be consistent with the opinion of Dr. Baldwin. As a result, The ALJ's RFC does not reject Dr. Baldwin's opinion regarding Plaintiff's ability to lift. Consequently, I find the ALJ did not err in this regard.
On this point, I further note that the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of Dr. Kar, a state agency medical consultant. (ECF No. 4-2, p. 25). Dr. Kar specifically found that Plaintiff could perform a range of medium work. (ECF No. 4-3, pp. 7-8, 20-21). Thus, I find there is substantial evidence of ...