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Reynolds v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

February 28, 2017

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 28th day of February, 2017, upon consideration of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12) filed in the above-captioned matter on October 11, 2016, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is DENIED.

         AND, further, upon consideration of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10) filed in the above-captioned matter on October 10, 2016, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that said Motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. Specifically, Plaintiff's Motion is granted to the extent that it seeks a remand to the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) for further evaluation as set forth below, and denied in all other respects. Accordingly, this matter is hereby remanded to the Commissioner for further evaluation under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) in light of this Order.

         I. Background

         On September 13, 2010, Plaintiff, Patrick Lynn Reynolds, filed a claim for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Plaintiff claimed that he became disabled on December 1, 1987, due to a back injury with chronic back pain, joint pain and numbness in the left arm and both legs, shortness of breath even with light exertion, inability to lift over five pounds without pain, inability to stand for more than 15 minutes without pain, fatigue, pain and shortness of breath walking a short way, and other health issues. (R. 11).

         After being denied initially on December 13, 2010, Plaintiff sought and obtained a hearing on January 11, 2012, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David Brash. (R. 24-62). An additional hearing was held before the ALJ on June 13, 2012. (R. 63-88). In a decision dated July 19, 2012, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. (R. 8-23). The Appeals Council declined to review the ALJ's decision on February 12, 2014. (R. 1-6). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a timely appeal with the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and by Order dated April 21, 2015, the Court remanded the case for further administrative proceedings. In particular, the Court found that the ALJ's RFC assessment was

not supported by substantial evidence because, in failing to address the question of Plaintiff's left hand impairment, it is not clear whether the ALJ chose to reject a limitation concerning Plaintiff's left hand, whether the ALJ felt that the RFC fully accounted for Plaintiff's left hand limitations, or whether the omission of a limitation concerning Plaintiff's left hand was merely unintentional. While the ALJ was by no means required to simply adopt all of the findings of Dr. Tayal, he was required to explain his basis for rejecting them if he chose to do so, particularly in light of the fact that he expressly gave additional weight to this opinion in formulating Plaintiff's RFC. On the other hand, it is possible that the ALJ expected that limiting Plaintiff's overhead reaching also adequately addressed any additional left hand problems Dr. Tayal detected, but, without a specific explanation by the ALJ of his reasoning, it is not apparent to the Court whether this general limitation also accounts for any more specific left hand limitations.

(R. 477). Accordingly, the case was remanded “for further discussion as to the rationale for not including specific left hand limitations in determining Plaintiff's RFC and in formulating the hypothetical question to the VE.” (R. 477-78).

         Upon remand, a supplemental hearing was held before the ALJ on January 22, 2016. (R. 420-435). In a decision dated March 9, 2016, the ALJ issued a partially favorable decision to Plaintiff, having concluded that beginning became disabled as of June 3, 2014, the date his age category changed, but was not disabled prior to that date. (R. 403-414). Having exhausted his administrative remedies for the second time, Plaintiff filed this action, and the parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment.

         II. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of a social security case is based upon the pleadings and the transcript of the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The scope of review is limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings of fact. See Matthews v. Apfel, 239 F.3d 589, 592 (3d Cir. 2001) (“[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive” (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 405(g))).

         “Substantial evidence” is defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate” to support a conclusion. Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). However, a “single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [Commissioner] ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence.” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians) - or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion.” Id.

         A disability is established when the claimant can demonstrate some medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 38-39 (3d Cir. 2001). “A claimant is considered unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity ‘only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he 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 . . . .'” Id. at 39 (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A)).

         The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has promulgated regulations incorporating a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether a claimant is under a disability as defined by the Act. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. In Step One, the Commissioner must determine whether the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(b). If so, the disability claim will be denied. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140 (1987). If not, the second step of the process is to determine whether the claimant is suffering from a severe impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). “An impairment or combination of impairments 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). If the claimant fails to show that his or her impairments are “severe, ” he or she is ineligible for disability benefits. If the claimant does have a severe impairment, however, the Commissioner must proceed to Step Three and determine ...

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