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Parker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

April 6, 2017



          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge


         Plaintiff David Joseph Parker (“Parker”) brings this action seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision denying a claim for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). Parker filed an application in March of 2013, alleging a disability beginning on October 15, 2010 due to ventral hernias and arthritis in his hands and shoulders. He appeared and testified at a February 3, 2015 hearing, as did a vocational expert. The ALJ denied Parker's claim, finding him capable of performing a significant number of jobs in the national economy. Parker has appealed and challenges the ALJ's decision in several respects. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. Docket no. 10 and Docket no. 12. After careful consideration, I find Parker's arguments to be unpersuasive. Consequently, the ALJ's decision is affirmed.

         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. Treating Physician's Doctrine

         Parker faults the ALJ for allegedly failing to evaluate the opinions offered by his treating physicians in accordance with agency policy and relevant case law. The amount of weight accorded to medical opinions is well-established. 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] medial 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)(4). “[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 Court 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 Soc. Sec., 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.” 20 C.F.R. §416.927(d)(1), (3); Dixon v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 183 Fed.Appx. 248, 251-52 (3d Cir. 2006) (stating, “[o]pinions of disability are not medical opinions and are not given any special significance.”). Although the ALJ may choose who to credit when faced with a conflict, he “cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.” Diaz v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 505 (3d Cir. 2009). The ALJ must provide sufficient explanation for his or her final determination to provide a reviewing court with the benefit of the factual basis underlying the ultimate disability finding. Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981). In other words, the ALJ must provide sufficient discussion to allow the court to determine whether any rejection of potentially pertinent, relevant evidence was proper. Johnson v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 203-04 (3d Cir. 2008).

         Against this backdrop, I find that, contrary to Parker's assertions, the ALJ gave appropriate weight to the opinions rendered by Dr. Taggert and Dr. Smith. Certainly the record belies any contention by Parker that the ALJ “failed to provide good / specific / supported reasons” for assigning those opinions little weight. The ALJ explicitly gave Dr. Taggert's opinion “limited weight because it is without substantial support from the treatment records.” (R. 18)[2] The ALJ explained that “physical examinations documented normal cervical and lumbar spine range of motion, no back tenderness, normal extremities without deformities, edema or skin discoloration, normal motor function, normal sensory function, and normal gait and station.” (R. 18) The ALJ added that Parker was pleasant and cooperative and did not show any distress during the examination. (R 18) She further stated that “the assessed limitations are inconsistent with the claimant's treatment and reported daily activities.” (R. 18) With respect to the additional letter regarding jury duty, the ALJ raised these same concerns and added that “the letter does not describe the limitations and offers no analysis supporting the conclusion.” (R. 18)

         Similarly, the ALJ gave Dr. Smith's opinion “limited weight because it is without substantial support from the treatment records, including physical examinations documenting good strength throughout the lower extremities and normal reflexes.” (R. 18)[3] The ALJ added that, although Dr. Smith “noted limited motion, further physical examinations documented normal range of motion as well as normal gait and station.” (R. 18) Further, the ALJ remarked upon the inconsistency between Dr. Smith's notation in the medical records that Parker could stand for any period of time and Parker's own testimony that he could stand for 1- 1 ½ hours. (R. 18)

         Thus, contrary to Parker's contentions, the ALJ did explain why the limitations set forth in Dr. Taggert's and Dr. Smith's virtually identical reports were rejected: the findings were inconsistent with the medical record, they were at odds with Parker's appearance at the hearing, they were devoid of any analysis or description of the limitations, and they were inconsistent with his activities of daily living. As set forth above, these are appropriate bases for rejecting a treating physician's report. See Mason v. Shalala,994 F.2d 1058, 1065 (3d Cir. 1993) (stating that reports which amount to little more than a checking of the boxes or fill in the blank constitute “weak evidence”); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999) (stating that “[a]n ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical ...

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