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Anderson v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 29, 2017



          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 29th day of March, 2017, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court, upon review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Subchapter II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401, et seq., finds that the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jesurum v. Secretary of U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied sub nom., 507 U.S. 924 (1993); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). See also Berry v. Sullivan, 738 F.Supp. 942, 944 (W.D. Pa. 1990) (if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed, as a federal court may neither reweigh the evidence, nor reverse, merely because it would have decided the claim differently) (citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981)). See also Monsour Medical Center v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986).[1]

         Therefore, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 9) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 13) is GRANTED.



[1] Plaintiff's raises numerous arguments that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding him to be not disabled under the Social Security Act, none of which warrant remand of this matter. Instead, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.

Plaintiff first suggests that he was given something less than a full and fair hearing before the ALJ. This seems to be based on a few instances in the record where the ALJ tried to move the hearing along. (R. 82-89). However, in context, the ALJ's statements were no more than part of her effort to expedite the process and were in no way meant to limit the evidence Plaintiff could produce. Indeed, the ALJ expressly gave Plaintiff the option of scheduling a supplemental hearing if he believed that he needed more time to present all of his evidence. (R. 82). Moreover, Plaintiff in no way suggests what evidence, if any, he was precluded from entering into the record or how anything in the record demonstrates bias or animus on the part of the ALJ. These facts fall far short of a situation in which a claimant has been deprived of a fair hearing. See Bordes v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 235 Fed.Appx. 853, 857-58 (3d Cir. 2007).

Plaintiff next argues that remand is warranted because the ALJ failed to analyze thoroughly the listings contained in Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 of the Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to the musculoskeletal system, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, endocrine disorders, and malignant neoplastic diseases, and, further, that her analysis of his mental impairments pursuant to Listings 12.04 and 12.06 was insufficient. The Court disagrees. The ALJ asked counsel at the hearing whether Plaintiff was claiming to meet any listing, and counsel responded that he was not. (R. 52-53). Indeed, even now Plaintiff does not actually argue that he meets any of the listings, merely that the ALJ's discussion was not adequate pursuant to the standard set forth in Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112 (3d Cir. 2000). In essence, he is arguing that the ALJ was required to provide a detailed analysis of about half of all the listings even though he himself has never alleged that he meets one. As the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has explained, Burnett does not require an ALJ to employ any specific language or format in discussing the listings at Step Three of the sequential process, but rather requires that ALJ “to ensure that there is sufficient development of the record and explanation of findings to permit meaningful review.” Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 505 (3d Cir. 2004). In determining whether the ALJ has done so, the Court is to look at the decision as a whole to see whether it illustrates that the ALJ considered the proper factors in reaching his or her conclusion. See id. Here, the ALJ discussed the medical evidence at great length, and merely clarified at Step Three that it did not meet the listings most likely at issue. Considering this extensive discussion, and the fact that Plaintiff himself does not contend that the ALJ ignored any specific evidence that would demonstrate that he met a listing, the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding. See Lopez v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 270 Fed.Appx. 119, 121-22 (3d Cir. 2008).

Plaintiff's arguments about the weight given to aspects of the opinion of Dr. Paul Means, D.O., one of his treating physicians, are somewhat intertwined, but lack merit in any regard. For instance, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in not giving controlling weight to Dr. Means' opinion that he would miss three or more days of work per month as a result of his impairments. (R. 451). It is true that when assessing a claimant's application for benefits, the opinion of the claimant's treating physician generally is to be afforded significant weight. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). In fact, the regulations provide that a treating physician's opinion is to be given “controlling weight” so long as the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2); Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 43; Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429. As a result, the ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence, and not on the basis of the ALJ's own judgment or speculation, although he may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are provided. See Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429.

However, it is also important to remember that:

The ALJ -- not treating or examining physicians or State agency consultants -- must make the ultimate disability and RFC determinations. Although treating and examining physician opinions often deserve more weight than the opinions of doctors who review records, “[t]he law is clear . . . that the opinion of a treating physician does not bind the ALJ on the issue of functional capacity[.]” Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 197 n. 2 (3d Cir.2011). State agent opinions merit significant consideration as well.

Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011)(internal citations omitted in part). Here, the ALJ included in her decision a substantial discussion as to why she weighed Dr. Means' opinion as she did and as to how she formulated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”).

As Plaintiff acknowledges, the ALJ actually afforded “significant” weight to Dr. Means' opinion, with the exception as to his opinion regarding work absences. (R. 36). Regarding Dr. Means' opinion that Plaintiff would miss three or more days of work per month, the ALJ discussed at significant length how such an opinion was inconsistent with the medical evidence, including Dr. Means' own clinical findings. She further explained that such an opinion was inconsistent with the rest of Dr. Means' assessment of mild to moderate limitations. (Id.). Indeed, Dr. Means did not in any way explain the medical basis for finding that Plaintiff would be absent from work for that specific amount of time, nor is there other medical evidence in the record supporting such a finding. As such, the ALJ was justified in giving less weight to this aspect of Dr. Means' opinion.

Plaintiff further argues that the ALJ erred in not specifically addressing the Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 50 assessed to him by Dr. Means. Although the ALJ did not specifically discuss this score, under the facts of this case, the Court ...

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