United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge.
filed an application for supplemental social security
disability insurance benefits and supplemental social
security income, alleging disability due to physical and
mental impairments, beginning June 14, 2011. Plaintiff's
application was denied initially, and upon hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The Appeals
Council denied his request for review. Before the Court are
the parties' cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. For the
following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be denied, and
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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
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). Nonetheless, I am not required
to read the ALJ's opinion “in a vacuum.”
Knox v. Astrue, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28978, at *22
(W.D. Pa. May 26, 2010).
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in his analysis of the
opinions of examining psychologists Holmes and Uran.
Plaintiff objects both to the ALJ's failure to explicitly
consider the factors identified in 20 C.F.R. §
414.1527(c) applicable to medical opinion; he also points to
several areas of the medical opinion that support the
“may afford a treating physician's opinion more or
less weight depending upon the extent of supporting
evidence." Hild v. Astrue, 2008 U.S. Dist.
LEXIS 57785 (M.D. Pa. July 28, 2008). Certainly, therefore,
an ALJ may give little weight to a doctor's opinion that
is inconsistent with the medical evidence of record and with
his own examination findings. Woznicki v. Colvin,
2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 62792 (D. Del. May 12, 2016). However,
a conclusory statement that a physician's opinion is
“inconsistent with his own exam results” is
insufficient, as it fails to achieve the level of specificity
required to reject a physician's opinion. Amirkhanov
v. Colvin, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52361, at *10 (W.D.
Wash. Apr. 18, 2016). It is error to reject opinion as
inconsistent with evidence of record, without identifying
what the inconsistent evidence is. King v. Barnhart,
114 Fed.Appx. 968, 972 (10th Cir. 2004).
too, that while an ALJ is required to “consider”
the factors identified in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c),
"there is a distinction between what an adjudicator must
consider and what the adjudicator must explain in the
disability determination or decision." Hartzell v.
Colvin, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133679, at **18-19 (M.D.
Pa. Sept. 30, 2015). Thus, a factor-by-factor analysis is not
required. Id. “If an explanation allows
meaningful judicial review, it suffices.” Id.
29, Dr. Uran, a state agency examiner, assigned a GAF of 55,
and that Plaintiff had moderate restrictions in understanding
and remembering detailed instructions and making simple
work-related decisions; moderate to marked restrictions in
interacting appropriately with the public, supervisors, and
co-workers; and marked restrictions in carrying out detailed
instructions. The ALJ, acknowledging that Dr. Uran is a
psychologist, gave her opinion “some weight.” The
ALJ found that greater than moderate limitations were not
supported by her own examination of Plaintiff, the GAF score
assigned, and Plaintiff's conservative treatment history.
no error in the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Uran's
opinion, despite the fact that greater clarity would have
been preferable. It is not error to consider whether an
assigned GAF score is congruent with a provider's other
opinions. See Long v. Colvin, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
45993, at **25-26 (M.D. Pa. Apr. 5, 2016). Further, although
Plaintiff takes issue with the ALJ's description of
Plaintiff's treatment as “conservative, ” it
is clear that the ALJ considered the entirety of his mental
health treatment. The remainder of Plaintiff's argument
includes a recitation of his diagnoses and symptoms, and the
assertion that these do, in fact, support Dr. Uran's
opinion. As I have stated elsewhere, “[t]he standard
before me is not whether there is evidence to support
[Plaintiff's] position but, rather, whether there is
substantial evidence to support the ALJ's finding.”
Burczyk v. Colvin, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 70603, at
*3 (W.D. Pa. May 31, 2016). The ALJ considered the entire
record regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments, such as
the opinion of a state agency psychologist, and
Plaintiff's testimony and activities; his approach, and
explanation, was adequate.
address the ALJ's consideration of Dr. Holmes, a
psychologist at Stairways Behavioral Health
(“Stairways”), where Plaintiff underwent mental
health treatment. On August 20, 2013, Dr. Holmes opined that
Plaintiff would often or occasionally have difficulty in
various areas relating to interactions with others, would
occasionally have difficulty managing even a low-stress work
environment, would often have difficulty maintaining
concentration, pace, and persistence, and would be unable to
complete an 8-hour shift 15-20 days per month, due to
increased symptoms. The ALJ gave Dr. Holmes' opinion
“little weight, ” because Dr. Holmes had minimal
experience with Plaintiff, and his opinion regarding
inability to work 15-20 days per month was
“speculation, ” and was inconsistent with Dr.
Holmes' own mental status examinations.
greater detail regarding an analysis of Dr. Holmes'
opinions would have been preferable, the ALJ's decision
is sufficient to permit review. Although the ALJ used the
word “inconsistent, ” he specified that he
rejected Dr. Holmes' opinion regarding days unable to
work due to lack of record support, rather than an
affirmative conflict between two pieces of evidence. In other
words, he did not merely refer to an inconsistency without
identifying any. Indeed, Plaintiff points to no particular
support in the record for the conclusions that the ALJ
rejected. Plaintiff's argument boils down to pointing to
the weight of the evidence, ...