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Wozniak v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 9, 2017



          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge


         Plaintiff Francis Marion Wozniak (“Wozniak”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1383 for review of the ALJ's decision denying a claim for supplemental security income (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§1381-1383f. Wozniak alleges a disability beginning on November 6, 2003. (R. 190-96) He contends that he is disabled due to a number of mental and physical impairments. Following a hearing which included a consultation with a vocational expert, the ALJ denied his claim, concluding that Wozniak had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work, with certain restrictions. (R. 332-33) Wozniak appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket nos. 9 and 13. 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. Whether Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's RFC Assessment

         Wozniak takes issue with the ALJ's treatment of medical reports submitted by DeanAnn Farris, DO and Debra Bjork, DO. Wozniak had treated with both Farris and Bjork at Stairways Behavioral Health for mental impairment issues. On December 6, 2013, Dr. Farris submitted a medical report opining that, based upon her observations, clinical history, review of the treatment records and signs / symptoms, Wozniak would not be able to maintain regular attendance on a sustained basis; would not be able to interact appropriately with fellow workers on a sustained basis; and would not be able to interact appropriately with supervisors on a sustained basis and respond appropriately to supervisory criticism. (R. 392-93) In a report dated October 6, 2014, Dr. Bjork echoed the same findings. (R. 569)

         The ALJ explained that:

[t]hese forms are given some limited weight as treating source opinion statements, although more than moderate symptoms were typically not reflected in the claimant's treatment notes and GAF scores through Stairways, with limited increases in symptoms associated with specific circumstantial stress factors. Furthermore, more than moderate restrictions in social functionings are not documented, with the claimant confirming that he goes to church and AA meetings regularly, and stays in touch with his good friends and some of his relatives (Exhibit B3E/5, 11; testimony). The claimant's treatment notes do not indicate any substantial deficits in his ability to interact appropriately with others, and although he reported some problems in this area at the hearing, in a functional self-assessment he denied problems getting along with family, friends, and neighbors, and he stated that he gets along ‘well' with authority figures (Exhibit B3E/6-7, testimony). Greater weight is given to the GAF scores and longitudinal treatment notes through Stairways, with moderate limitations in social functioning reflected in the residual functional capacity assessment of this decision.

(R. 31) (emphasis added).

         After careful review of the record, applicable regulations and relevant case law, I agree with Wozniak that the ALJ's finding in this regard is problematic. Generally, the ALJ will give more weight to the opinion of a source who has examined the claimant than to that of a non-examining source. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(1). Additionally, the ALJ typically will give more weight to opinions from treating physicians “since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from the reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). If the ALJ finds that “a treating source's opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence [of] record, ” he must give that opinion controlling weight. Id. If a treating physician's opinion is not given controlling weight, the ALJ must consider all relevant factors that tend to support or contradict any medical opinions of record, including the patient / physician relationship; the supportability of the opinion; the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole; and the specialization of the provider at issue. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(1)-(6). “[T]he more consistent an opinion is with the record as a whole, the more weight [the ALJ generally] will give to that opinion.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(4). In the event of conflicting medical evidence, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has explained:

“A cardinal principle guiding disability determinations is that the ALJ accord treating physicians' reports great weight, especially ‘when their opinions reflect expert judgment based on continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time.'” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000) (quoting Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999)). However, “where … the opinion of a treating physician conflicts with that of a non-treating, non-examining physician, the ALJ may choose whom to credit” and may reject the treating physician's assessment if such rejection is based on contradictory medical evidence. Id. Similarly, under 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2), the opinion of a treating physician is to be given controlling weight only when it is well-supported by medical evidence and is consistent with other evidence in the record.

Becker v. Comm'r. of Social Security, 403 Fed.Appx. 679, 686 (3d Cir. 2010). The ultimate issue of whether an individual is disabled within the meaning of the Act is for the Commissioner to decide. Thus, the ALJ is not required to afford special weight to a statement by a medical source that a claimant is “disabled” or “unable to work.” Dixon v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 183 Fed.Appx. 248, 251-52 (3d Cir. 2006) (stating that ...

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