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Adorno v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 23, 2017

SHARON M. ADORNO, Plaintiff,


          Gustave Diamond United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 23th day of January, 2017, upon due consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment relating to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner") denying plaintiffs application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 22) be, and the same hereby is, granted, and plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Document No. 18) 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). 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 protectively filed her pending applications for disability insurance benefits and SSI on June 13, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of May 25, 2012, due to depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, mood disorder and scoliosis. Plaintiffs applications were denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on January 17, 2014, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On January 31, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On June 16, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff was 50 years old on her alleged onset date and is classified as a person closely approaching advanced age under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1563(d) and 416.963(e). She has at least a high school education and has past relevant work experience as a personal home health aide, a collections clerk and a receptionist, but she has not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date.

         After reviewing plaintiffs medical records and hearing testimony from plaintiff and a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is not disabled within the meaning of the Act. The ALJ found that although plaintiff has the severe impairments of affective disorder, anxiety-related disorder, personality disorder, scoliosis, cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease and obesity, those impairments, alone or in combination, do not meet or equal the criteria of any of the impairments listed at Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P.

         The ALJ also found that plaintiff retains the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to engage in work at the light exertional level but with numerous restrictions necessary to accommodate her physical and mental impairments.[1] Taking into account these restrictions, a vocational expert identified numerous categories of jobs which plaintiff can perform based upon her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, including electroni accessories assembler, non-government mail clerk and conveyor line bakery worker. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that although plaintiff is unable to perforn any of her past relevant work, she is capable of making an adjustment to numerous jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded thai plaintiff is not disabled under the Act.

         The Act defines "disability" as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment which can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§423(d)(1)(A) and 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. §§423(d)(2)(A) and §1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability.[2] 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520 and 416.920. If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the claim need not be reviewed further. Id.; see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20 (2003).

         Here, plaintiff raises a plethora of challenges to the ALJ's decision: (1) the ALJ erred at step 2 in finding that several of plaintiff s medically determinable impairments are "not severe" under the regulations; (2) the ALJ erred at step 3 in finding that plaintiffs severe mental impairments do not meet or equal the criteria of Listings 12.04 and 12.06; (3) the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of the consultative psychologist; (4) the ALJ's RFC finding fails to account for all of plaintiff s limitations; and, (5) the ALJ improperly evaluated plaintiffs credibility. Upon review, the court is satisfied that the ALJ correctly evaluated all of the evidence under the appropriate standards and that all of the ALJ's findings at every step of the sequential evaluation process are supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiffs first argument is that the ALJ erred at step 2 of the sequential evaluation process in finding that several of plaintiff s medically determinable impairments, including hypertension, hyperlipidemia, pre-diabetes, vitamin D deficiency, hypothyroidism, and recurrent right-sided paresthesias and chronic severe headaches secondary to a benign brain tumor, are not "severe" within the meaning of the regulations.[3] The court is satisfied that the ALJ's step 2 finding is supported by substantial evidence.

         At step two, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical... impairment that meets the duration requirement...." 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(a)(4)(ii) and 416.920(a)(4)(ii). An impairment is "severe" if it "significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520(c) and 416.920(c). The duration requirement mandates that the severe impairment "must have lastec or must be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§423(d)(1)(A) and 1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R. §§404.1509 and 416.909.

         The step two inquiry is a de minimus screening device and, if the evidence presents more than a slight abnormality, the step two requirement of severity is met and the sequential evaluation process should continue. Newell, 347 F.3d at 546. The claimant bears the burden; step 2 of establishing that an impairment is severe. See McCrea v. Commissioner of Social Security. 370 F.3d 357, 360 (3rd Cir. 2004).

         Here, while not an exacting one, it nevertheless was plaintiffs burden to show that her medically determinable impairments result in more than a de minimus effect on her ability to perform basic work functions. She did not meet that burden. As the ALJ explained in her decision, all of the impairments which she found to be not severe typically are well-controlled with minimal, conservative treatment and medication, and none cause more than minimal limitation in plaintiffs functioning. (R. 15-16). The court finds no error in the ALJ's thoroug evaluation of these impairments at step 2.

         It also is important to note that the ALJ did not deny plaintiffs claim at step 2. McCre; 370 F.3d at 360-61 (the Commissioner's determination to deny a claim at step 2 "should be reviewed with close scrutiny" because step 2 "is to be rarely utilized as a basis for the denial oi benefits".) Instead, the ALJ considered the impact of all of plaintiffs medically determinable impairments, severe and not severe, on plaintiffs RFC and found no additional limitations that would result from her non-severe impairments beyond those accounted for in the RFC finding. ...

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