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Fields v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 13, 2017



          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.


         Plaintiff Joshua Fields (“Fields”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the ALJ's decision denying a claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, 1381-1383f. Fields alleges a disability beginning on May 15, 2013. (R. 23) He contends that he is disabled due to a number of mental impairments. Following a hearing which included a consultation with a vocational expert, the ALJ denied his claim, concluding that Fields had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform certain tasks associated with unskilled positions such as a laundry worker, sorter and marker. (R. 30) Fields appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. [16] and [18]. After careful consideration, the case is remanded for further consideration.

         Legal Analysis

         1. Standard of Review

         The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is “not merely a quantitative exercise.” Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians).” Id. The Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See, 5 U.S.C. §706.

         2. Step Two Analysis

         As stated above, at the second step of the analysis, the ALJ must assess whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or combination of impairments that is severe. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). An impairment is severe if it significantly limits a claimant's physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c); 20 C.F.R. § 1521(a). If the claimant is found to have a severe impairment, the analysis proceeds to the next step. Here, Fields contends that the ALJ oversimplified his analysis at this stage.

         Specifically, the ALJ identified Fields as suffering from the severe impairments of “depression and mood disorder.” (R. 26) Yet, as the ALJ himself acknowledged in the second step of the analysis, Fields was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, poor impulse disorder, episodic mood disorder, cannabis dependence, bipolar disorder and depression. (R. 26-27) In failing to diagnose these additional impairments as “severe”, Fields urges that the ALJ erred in his findings with respect to step two.

         Although I find the ALJ's failure to distinguish between or among Fields's various diagnoses to be troublesome, [1] his argument must be rejected. The ALJ found that Fields had severe impairments that satisfied the de minimis criteria set forth at the second step of the analysis. Benefits were not denied at this stage. Because the ALJ found in Fields's favor at this juncture, the fact that he did not differentiate among different mental impairments constitutes harmless error. See Salles v. Commr. of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 145 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2007) (stating that, “[b]ecause the ALJ found in Salle's favor at Step Two, even if he had erroneously concluded that some of her other impairments were non-severe, any error was harmless.”), citing, Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 553 (3d Cir. 2005) and Roberts v. Astrue, Civ. No. 8-625, 2009 WL 3183084 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2009) (finding that, “[e]ven assuming that the ALJ failed to include all of the Plaintiff's severe impairments at step two, this would be harmless error, as the ALJ did not make his disability determination at this step. Indeed, remand would not affect the outcome of this case and is not warranted.”). Because the ALJ found in Fields's favor at step two, any alleged error was harmless and does not require reversal or remand.

         3. RFC Assessment

         Fields also attacks the ALJ's residual functional capacity analysis. Fields suggests that the ALJ's failure to differentiate among the various mental impairments, indeed his seeming failure to even acknowledge the existence of some of those impairments, renders his RFC analysis inadequate. Additionally, Fields reasons, the ALJ's RFC analysis is based upon mere speculation and thus lacks substantial evidentiary support. After careful consideration, I agree with both contentions.

         In this case, the ALJ acknowledged that in making the RFC determination he was obligated to consider all impairments, even those he has found not to be severe. (R. 25) (stating, “[i]n making this finding, I must consider all of the claimant's impairments, including impairments that are not severe”). At step two of the analysis, the ALJ clearly identified numerous mental impairments, both severe and non-severe, that Fields struggled with. (R. 26-27, acknowledging that Fields had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, poor impulse control disorder, episodic mood disorder, cannabis dependence, bipolar disorder and depression) Yet the ALJ's RFC analysis is devoid of reference to any of these conditions. Nowhere does the ALJ discuss the impact of Fields's uncontroverted mental impairments on his residual functional capacity. Without such a detailed analysis, I am unable to conduct a proper and meaningful review. Consequently, remand is warranted for a full and proper analysis consistent with this opinion.

         Additionally, Fields contends that the ALJ improperly reached his conclusions without the benefit of any medical expert's opinion. Here, the medical evidence of record was supplied by Dr. Sonaya Radfar and records from Chartiers Community MH / MR. In fact, the only opinion regarding Fields's residual functional capacity was supplied by Dr. Radfar.[2] The ALJ rejected this opinion. (R. 29) Thus, the ALJ made conclusions regarding ...

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