United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
DONETTA W. AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., alleging disability due to various mental and physical impairments. His claim was denied initially, and upon hearing by an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Before the Court are the parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment, which involve only Plaintiff's mental condition. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be denied, and Defendant's granted.
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
In this appeal, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly gave diminished weight to the opinions of treating therapist Tim Gigliotti and treating psychiatrist Dr. Mandoly; and failed, in the residual functional capacity assessment ("RFC"), to account for Plaintiff's stress-related limitations in responding to work pressures and to changes in a work setting.
A. Medical Evidence
Plaintiff suggests that the ALJ improperly rejected Dr. Mandoly's opinion, because the ALJ focused too heavily on GAF scores, and mischaracterized Plaintiff's medical progress. The ALJ, thoroughly assessed Dr. Mandoly's treatment notes, and concluded that his statement of disability was inconsistent with those notes. The ALJ further found that Dr. Mandoly did not cite to medical evidence of record, or provide limitations, other than noting that Plaintiff was "permanently disabled." Similarly, while Mr. Gigliotti opined that Plaintiff was not a candidate for employment, the ALJ noted his status as a therapist, rather than an "acceptable medical source." The ALJ further noted inconsistencies and lack of functional limitations associated with Mr. Gigliotti's opinion. Moreover, GAF scores remain relevant and acceptable evidence. Jones v. Colvin, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74986, at *15 (W.D. Pa. June 10, 2015). Here, the ALJ used the GAF scores as summarized evidence of Plaintiff's progress. This was not improper. In sum, the ALJ offered several legitimate reasons for the weight assigned the opinions of Mr. Gigliotti and Dr. Mandoly.
Plaintiff also takes issue with the ALJ's treatment of Plaintiff's 2013 hospitalization, suggesting that the ALJ discounted the incident because it was related to situational stressors. The ALJ, however, addressed those stressors, as well as the course of the hospitalization, to conclude that the hospitalization was an anomaly, rather than indicative of Plaintiff's ongoing condition; the cause of the incident was not itself dispositive of the ALJ's treatment. I find no error in this regard. Whether I would have weighed the evidence differently is not the pertinent issue; I cannot substitute my judgment for that of the ALJ.
B. Stress-related Limitations
With regard to Plaintiff's stress-related limitations, he contends that Dr. Newman, a consulting examiner, found that Plaintiff had marked difficulty in his ability to respond to work pressures in a usual work setting, and moderate ability to respond to workplace changes. The ALJ gave Dr. Newman's opinion "significant weight, " stating that the opinion was generally consistent with Plaintiff's treatment records, and his own examination of Plaintiff. Similarly, Dr. Link, a non-examining agency consultant, opined that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in responding to workplace changes. The ALJ gave Dr. Link's opinion "great weight, " stating that the opinion was generally consistent with Plaintiff's treatment records, which demonstrate mild to moderate limitations. Accordingly, the ALJ arrived at an RFC with the ...