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Salem v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

January 24, 2017

CHRISTIN MICHELLE SALEM, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          Stanley E. Hilton, Esq., Michael Colville Assistant U.S. Attorney

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER OF COURT

          Gustave Diamond, United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 24 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 ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act"), IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Document No. 11) be, and the same hereby is, granted and plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (Document No. 9) 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). Importantly, 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 application for DIBon October 11, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of August 27, 2012, due to Crohn's disease and other gastrointestinal problems and depression and anxiety.[1] Plaintiffs application was denied initially. At plaintiffs request an ALJ held a hearing on January 29, 2014, at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified. On May 19, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff is not disabled. On October 6, 2015, the Appeals Council denied review making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff was 32 years old on the date of the ALJ's decision and is classified as a younger person under the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§404.1563(c). She has at least a high school education and has past relevant work experience as a graphic designer, 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 Depression/Anxiety and Crohn's Disease status/post Ileal Resection, 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.[2] 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 sorter, garment bagger and marker. Relying on the vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ found that although plaintiff is unable to perform 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 that 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). 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)(1)(B).

         The Commissioner has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability .[3] 20 C.F.R. §404.1520; Newell v. Commissioner of Social Security. 347 F.3d 541, 545 (3d Cir. 2003). If the claimant is found disabled or not disabled at any step, the claim need not be reviewed further. Id.; see Barnhart v. Thomas. 124 S.Ct. 376 (2003).

         Here, plaintiffs primary challenge to the ALJ's decision is that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence by failing to give controlling weight to the opinion of her treating physician. Alternatively, plaintiff requests a remand of this case so that the ALJ may consider additional records that were not previously before the ALJ but were submitted for the first time to the Appeals Council. Upon review, the court is satisfied that the ALJ correctly evaluated all of the medical evidence under the appropriate standards and that his evaluation of that evidence is supported by substantial evidence. In addition, the court finds that a new evidence remand is not warranted in this case.

         Plaintiffs first argument is that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical evidence. Specifically, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in giving "little weight" to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Kim Pierce, who completed a medical source statement regarding plaintiffs ability to perform work-related physical activities and a medical statement regarding pain. (R. 353-357). Dr. Pierce opined that plaintiff is "unable to concentrate or focus due to severe fatigue, " (R. 353), and indicated that plaintiff has marked restrictions in activities of daily living, marked difficulty in maintaining social functioning and deficiencies of concentration, persistence or pace resulting in frequent failure to complete tasks in a timely manner. (R. 355). Dr. Pierce concluded that plaintiffs pain, anxiety and depression would make "any meaningful work impossible." (R. 357). Plaintiff contends that Dr. Pierce's opinion is entitled to controlling weight.

         The rules by which the ALJ is to evaluate the medical evidence are well-established under the Social Security Regulations and the law of this circuit. Opinions of treating physicians are entitled to substantial, and at times even controlling, weight. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(2); Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 38. Where a treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of an impairment is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, it will be given controlling weight. Id. However, when a treating source's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, it is to be evaluated and weighed under the same standards applied to all other medical opinions, taking into account numerous factors, including the opinion's supportability, consistency and specialization. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c).

         Importantly, the opinion of any physician, including a treating physician, as to the claimant's residual functional capacity, or on the ultimate determination of disability, never is entitled to special significance. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(d); SSR 96-5p. "The law is clear... that the opinion of a treating physician does not bind the ALJ on the issue of functional capacity." Brown v. Astrue. 649 F.3d 193, 197 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2011). Rather, "[t]he ALJ-not treating or examining physicians or State agency consultants-must make the ultimate disability and RFC ...


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