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Roberson v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 21, 2017





         Plaintiff Emma Roberson (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the ALJ's decision denying her late husband Elmer Darnell Roberson's (“Roberson”) claims for disability insurance benefits (DIB) and supplemental security income (SSI) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-34, 1381-1383f. This case has a lengthy procedural history. Roberson initially filed his claim in April of 2010, alleging that he suffered from both physical and mental impairments that prevented him from engaging in substantial gainful activity. In March of 2012, an ALJ denied his claim, finding him capable of certain light work. (R. 39) Roberson appealed to this Court. Tragically, during the pendency of the appeal, Roberson died of an apparent “self-induced drug overdose.” (R. 900, 1219) Ultimately, Judge Cohill remanded the case, finding the ALJ's conclusions regarding Roberson's mental impairments to be wanting. (R. 947-968)

         Following remand, the ALJ held another evidentiary hearing, during which Plaintiff Emma Roberson and Roberson's niece Adiena Russel, appeared and testified. (R. 889) A vocational expert (“VE”) also testified. (R. 889) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Roberson had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a limited range of light work, such as a document preparer, a telephone solicitor, and a table worker. (R. 901) Plaintiff appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. [13] and [19]. 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 Amore 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.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the claimant must demonstrate that he cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986). The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R., pt. 404, subpt. P, appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id. A district court, after reviewing the entire record, may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

         2. Roberson's Mental Health Impairments and the RFC

         Plaintiff attacks the ALJ's assessment of Roberson's mental health impairments. More specifically, Plaintiff urges that the ALJ's RFC, which is not supported by any medical opinion of record, lacks substantial evidentiary support.[1] Plaintiff urges that the ALJ's RFC analysis lacks substantial evidentiary support and ignores Roberson's suicide. After careful consideration, I agree.

         Here, in fashioning the RFC, the ALJ opined that Roberson's mental impairments would limit him to:

Simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, performed in a stable work environment where the workplace and work processes remain generally the same day to day. He could have no public contact, meaning he would work with things not people. Only taking instruction or redirection from a supervisor where no immediate response is needed of the worker unless clarification is needed.

(R. 893-94) Yet, as stated above, the ALJ reached her conclusions without the benefit of any medical expert's opinion relating to these conditions. (R. 893-900)[2] The lack of a medical opinion as a basis for the ALJ's RFC is troublesome. As I stated in Terner v. Colvin, Civ. No. 14-1603, * 2 (W.D. Pa. Aug. 13, 2015):

[t]he ALJ, of course, must make the ultimate disability and RFC determinations. See20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(1), 404.1546(c). “The [RFC] assessment is a medical one and must be determined on the basis of medical evidence.” Warfle v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 150692 (M.D. Pa. May 5, 2011) “Rarely can a decision be made regarding a claimant's [RFC] without an assessment from a physician regarding the functional abilities of the claimant.” Gormont v. Astrue, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 31765, at * 27 (M.D. Pa. 2013); Goodson v. Colvin, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 58100, 2015 WL 2065328 (W.D. Pa. May 4, 2015). As stated with respect to physical limitations, for example, “[o]nce the doctor has determined how long the claimant can sit, stand or walk … then the ALJ, with the aid of a vocational expert if necessary, can translate that medical determination into a ...

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