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Bowers v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 1, 2017

LORIE C. BOWERS, Plaintiff,


          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge

         Presently before the court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to plaintiffs request for review of the decision of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security (AActing Commissioner") denying her application for disability insurance income (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). For reasons explained below, the Acting Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 13) will be granted, plaintiffs motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 11) will be denied, and the decision of the Acting Commissioner will be affirmed.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed her DIB application on January 23, 2013, alleging disability beginning on July 23, 2011, due to a number of physical and mental impairments. (R. 16, 190). Plaintiffs date last insured for DIB purposes was September 30, 2011. (R. 19). Therefore, the period under adjudication in this case is plaintiffs alleged onset date of July 23, 2011, through her date last insured of September 30, 2011 (hereinafter, “the relevant period”).

         After plaintiff's application was denied, she requested a hearing, which an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) held on March 17, 2014. (R. 36-58). In a decision issued on May 21, 2014, the ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from a number of severe physical and mental impairments during the relevant period, [2] but they did not meet or equal the criteria of any listed impairment set forth in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (“Appendix 1”). (R. 19). The ALJ then found that plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a limited range of light, unskilled work during the relevant period with the following additional restrictions to account for her physical and mental functional limitations: no pushing or pulling of pedals and controls with her lower extremities; no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; no reaching overhead with her left upper extremity; only occasional bending, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling and climbing ramps and stairs; no exposure to extreme heat or cold, vibration, pulmonary irritants or hazardous conditions; no more than simple, routine tasks, short directions, simple work-related decisions and few work place changes; no production rate pace and no fast-paced or quota work (collectively, the “RFC Finding”). (R. 20). Relying on testimony by a vocational expert who took into account plaintiff's residual functional capacity and vocational factors, the ALJ concluded plaintiff could have performed work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy during the relevant period and thus found she was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 29, 30).

         Following the ALJ's unfavorable decision, plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on June 17, 2015. (R. 1). The ALJ's decision then became the final decision of the Acting Commissioner. The instant action followed.

         II. Standard of Review

         When reviewing a disability determination, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. See 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 (1971)). If 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.

         III. Legal Analysis

         To qualify for DIB, a person must be disabled as that term is defined by the Act and accompanying Social Security Regulations. The Act defines “disability” as the inability to engage in substantial gainful activity by reason of a physical or mental impairment which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least twelve months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To determine whether a claimant is disabled, the Regulations specify the following five-step sequential evaluation process for the ALJ to consider: (1) whether the claimant currently is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether she has a severe impairment; (3) if so, whether her impairment meets or equals the criteria of a listing in Appendix 1; (4) if not, whether the claimant's impairment prevents her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if so, whether the claimant can perform any other work, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity.[3] 20 C.F.R. ' 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         A. Step 3 Listing Analysis

          Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's findings at step 3 of this process, which requires the ALJ to determine whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal one of the listed impairments.[4] See Burnett v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). It is the ALJ's burden to identify the relevant listed impairment in the Regulations that compares with the claimant's impairment. Id. at 120 n.2. However, it is the claimant's burden to present medical findings that show her impairment matches or is equivalent to a listed impairment. Id. (citing Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1186 (3d Cir. 1992)). In determining whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals a listed impairment, the ALJ must set forth the reasons for his decision. Burnett, 220 F.2d at 119.

         Here, plaintiff summarily claims the ALJ erred in failing to find that she meets or equals listings 1.02, 1.04, 1.07, 12.04 and 12.06. Contrary to plaintiff's bare assertion, a review of the record establishes that the ALJ employed the appropriate analysis in arriving at his step 3 finding. The ALJ analyzed the medical evidence of record and found that plaintiff suffered from a number of severe impairments during the relevant period, but they did not meet or equal any listed impairment even when considered in combination. The ALJ considered listings under 1.00 (musculoskeletal system), 2.00 (special senses and speech), 3.00 (respiratory disorders) and 12.00 (mental disorders), but he explained that plaintiff's conditions did not satisfy all the criteria of any particular listing. (R. 19-20).

         The ALJ satisfied his burden; however, plaintiff failed to sustain her burden of showing that her impairments met a listing during the relevant period. Other than making an unsubstantiated assertion that she met various listings, plaintiff failed to discuss any of the listing requirements let alone cite any medical evidence to show that she satisfied those requirements. Furthermore, no medical source of record found that plaintiff's impairments met or were equal to a listing ...

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