United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge
Kristi Kae Kiefer (“Kiefer”) brings this action
seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision denying her
claim for a period of disability,  disability insurance
benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security
income (“SSI”). Kiefer filed an application in
October of 2012 alleging a disability beginning in October of
2006. (R. 15) She appeared and testified at a February
2015 hearing, as did a vocational expert. The ALJ ultimately
denied Kiefer's claim, finding her capable of medium work
with certain restrictions. (R. 19) Kiefer has appealed and
challenges the ALJ's decision in several respects.
Pending are cross motions for summary judgment. See ECF
Docket nos. 11 and 16. After careful consideration, I find
that this case must be remanded for further consideration.
Standard of Review
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.
Â§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. Â§706.
Evaluation of Medical Opinions
faults the ALJ for allegedly failing to evaluate the opinions
offered by her treating physicians and the consultative
evaluators in accordance with agency policy and the relevant
case law. Kiefer's only persuasive argument relates to the
ALJ's reliance upon a submission from Family
Psychological Associates. The submission consists of a
two-page document in which the author details the level of
restriction imposed upon various work-related mental
activities due to Kiefer's impairments. (R. 337-338) The
ALJ “afforded this opinion significant weight, ”
finding it to be consistent with the medical evidence of
record and with the mental status examinations. (R. 24) I
agree with Kiefer that the ALJ's reliance upon this
submission was erroneous. The submission is both unsigned and
undated. Indeed, the report itself looks incomplete - as if
there were additional pages which were not attached.
“To be considered a medical opinion, a statement must
be from an acceptable medical source as defined by 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1513(a), 416.913(a) (defining acceptable
medical source as licensed physicians, licensed or certified
psychologists, licensed podiatrists, or qualified
speech-pathologists).” Cantelupe v. Colvin,
Civ. No. 15-410, 2015 WL 9598896 at * 12 n. 6 (M.D. Pa. Dec.
17, 2015). See also Felipa v. Astrue, Civ. No.
10-3151, 2011 WL 4529772 at * 4 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 2011)
(stating that “it would have been improper” for
the ALJ to rely on an unsigned and undated medical source
statement), citing, Young v. Heckler, Civ. No.
84-753, 1985 WL 2834, * 2 (E.D. Pa. 1985) (stating that
“[i]t is impermissible for the ALJ to attribute any
weight to a s[c]rawled signature on the printed form of an
unidentified physician who does not state any reason for his
opinion …. Where the qualifications of a physician do
not appear of record, his opinion should not be
considered.”) and Cannon v. Heckler, 627
F.Supp. 1370, 1375 (D. N.J. 1986) (stating, “[s]ince
the signature is illegible and the name and qualifications of
the physician unknown, the form should have been given no
weight”). See also Foust v. Astrue, Civ. No.
8-11, 2009 WL 1854526 at * 8 (N.D. Ind. June 26, 2009) As in
Cantelupe, here, there is no way to authenticate whether the
report in question was made by an acceptable medical source.
As such, the ALJ erred in relying upon it.
I cannot conclude that the ALJ's reliance upon the report
is harmless error, nor does the Government contend as much.
The ALJ gave the report “significant weight.” The
only other report relating to Kiefer's mental impairment
which the ALJ accepted as persuasive was the opinion
proffered by Valerie Rings, Psy.D. The ALJ accorded
Rings' opinion “significant weight.” (R. 24)
It is not clear, however, from the record whether the opinion
evidence provided by Rings, standing alone, would have
convinced the ALJ to deny benefits. Consequently, the case is
remanded for further consideration. On remand, the ALJ is
directed to reconsider his decision without reliance upon the
Family Psychological Associates' report.
this 12th day of May, 2017, it is hereby ORDERED
that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket no.
11) is granted and Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment (Docket no. 16) is denied. It is further ORDERED
that this action is REMANDED for further consideration in
accordance with the accompanying Opinion.
 Nancy A. Berryhill became acting
Commissioner of Social Security on January 23, 2017,