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Shaw v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 9, 2015

NICHOLE CAROLE SHAW
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN

OPINION AND ORDER

DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.

SYNOPSIS

Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging disability due to anxiety, depression, back and leg pain, and hypoglycemia. Her claim was denied initially, and upon hearing by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). The Appeals Council denied her request for review. Before the Court are the parties Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. The issues in this appeal are limited to Plaintiff's mental impairments. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be granted, and Defendant's denied.

OPINION

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. THE PARTIES' MOTIONS

A. Medical Opinion Evidence

In this case, the ALJ arrived at a residual functional capacity ("RFC") of light work, with non-exertional limitations to low stress simple repetitive tasks requiring little judgment making, no intensive supervision, and work not around the public. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ, in arriving at this RFC, improperly rejected the opinions of Ms. O'Connor, a licensed clinical social worker and Plaintiff's treating therapist, and Dr. Nadulek, the agency examining psychologist.[1]

1. Shelly O'Connor[2]

The record contains treatment notes that suggest that Ms. O'Connor treated Plaintiff over a period time. She signed a mental status evaluation form, indicating that Plaintiff would occasionally have difficulty interacting with supervisors and coworkers, and would often have difficulty maintaining concentration, pace, and task persistence. It also indicated that Plaintiff experiences five to six days per month when she would be unable to complete an eight-hour work shift.

With respect to Ms. O'Connor, the ALJ stated, cursorily, as follows:

It appears that the form was prepared by the claimant's attorney and presented for Ms. [O'Connor's] signature. Nonetheless, as a therapist, the individual remains a medical source, and so I have considered the report pursuant to SSR 06-3p, however, I give the report very little weight. This individual is not a doctor and therefore, not an acceptable ...

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