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Pasparage v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 23, 2017

ROBERT PASPARAGE, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM JUDGMENT ORDER

          Gustave Diamond United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 23 day of January, 2017, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Acting Commissioner") denying his application for supplemental security income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, IT IS ORDERED that the Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 10) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Document No. 8) be, and the same hereby is, denied.

         As the factfinder, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") has an obligation to weigh all of the facts and evidence of record and may reject or discount any evidence if the ALJ explains the reasons for doing so. Plummer v. Apfel. 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court is bound by those findings, even if it would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001). Moreover, it is well settled that disability is not determined merely by the presence of impairments, but by the effect that tho se impairments have upon an individual's ability to perform substantial gainful activity. Jones v. Sullivan. 954 F.2d 125, 129 (3d Cir. 1991). These well-established principles preclude a reversal or remand of the ALJ's decision here because the record contains substantial evidence to support the ALJ's findings and conclusions.

         Plaintiff filed his SSI application on November 1, 2012, alleging disability due to back problems, depression, a weak left arm and difficulty walking. Plaintiffs application was denied. At plaintiffs request, an ALJ held a hearing on June 23, 2014, at which plaintiff appeared and testified while represented by counsel. On August 19, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. The Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review on December 2, 2015, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. The instant action followed.

         Plaintiff, who has a high school education, was 46 years old when he filed his application, and is classified a younger individual under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §416.963(c). Plaintiff has past work experience as an office cleaner and construction laborer/roofer helper, but he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity at any time since he filed his application.

         After reviewing plaintiffs medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert at the hearing, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ first found that plaintiff suffers from the severe impairments of chronic low back pain, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, panic disorder and personality disorder; however, those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the listed impairments set forth in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Subpart P, Regulation No. 4 ("Appendix 1").

         The ALJ next found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity to perform light work with a number of other non-exertional limitations. Plaintiff is limited to working in a stable, low stress environment where he does not need to perform more than routine, repetitive tasks. In addition, plaintiff is precluded from contact with the public and is limited to only occasional contact with co-workers (collectively, the "RFC Finding").

         The ALJ concluded that plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work because it exceeds his residual functional capacity. However, based upon testimony by a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that plaintiff is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, such as a folding machine operator, retail marker and photocopy machine operator. Accordingly, the ALJ found that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act.

         The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment that can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A). The impairment or impairments must be so severe that the claimant "is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . ..." 42 U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Social Security Regulations specify a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is disabled. The ALJ must assess: (1) whether the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether he has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether his impairment meets or equals the criteria listed in Appendix 1; (4) if not, whether the claimant's impairment prevents him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant can perform any other work that exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity.[1] 20 C.F.R. §416.920(a)(4). If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, further inquiry is unnecessary. Id.

         In this case, plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings at steps 2 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred at step 2 by determining that certain of his claimed impairments are not severe. Further, plaintiff contends that ALJ's step 5 finding that he retains the residual functional capacity to perform work which exists in the national economy is not supported by substantial evidence. For reasons explained below, plaintiffs arguments are without merit.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in finding that his claimed shortness of breath with chest pain and underweight condition are not severe impairments. The "severity regulation" applied at step 2 requires that the claimant have a severe impairment, or combination of impairments, which significantly limits his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities.[2] 20 C.F.R. §416.920(c). The Social Security Regulations and Rulings, as well as case law applying them, discuss the step 2 severity determination in terms of what is "not severe." Newell v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Smolen v. Chater. 80 F.3d 1273, 1290 (9th Cir. 1996)). According to the Regulations, an impairment "is not severe if it does not significantly limit [the claimant's] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. §416.921(a).

         Although the principles discussed above indicate that the burden on an applicant at step 2 is not an exacting one, plaintiff nonetheless bears the burden to prove that his claimed impairments are severe. 20 C.F.R. §416.912(a); Bowen v. Yuckert 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987) (stating that the claimant bears the burden of proof at step 2 of the sequential evaluation process). Plaintiff has not met that burden in this case, as he has not proffered evidence to establish that his claimed shortness of breath with chest pain and underweight condition present more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform basic work activities.[3]

         As an initial matter, plaintiffs severity argument is undermined by the fact that he completed a disability report on which he indicated that back problems, depression, a weak left arm and difficulty walking limit his ability to work, not the other impairments that he now claims are severe. (R. 173). In addition, as the ALJ observed, plaintiffs contention that shortness of breath is a severe impairment is not substantiated by any clinical or diagnostic findings. (R. 12). Finally, plaintiffs claim that his underweight condition is a severe impairment is contradicted by his statement to the consultative medical examiner that ...


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