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McAdams v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 21, 2017

JOHN MCADAMS, JR., Plaintiff,


          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.


         Plaintiff John McAdams, Jr. (“McAdams”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the ALJ's decision denying of his 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. McAdams alleges a disability beginning in September of 2010[1] based upon both physical and mental impairments. His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 14) Following a hearing before an ALJ, during which both McAdams and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified, the ALJ again denied his claims. The ALJ concluded that McAdams had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with some restrictions. (R. 19) McAdams appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. [12] and [14]. 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. Light Work

         McAdams faults the ALJ for finding him capable of performing light work. As McAdams explains, “the full range of light work requires standing or walking, off and on, for a total of approximately 6 hours of an 8-hour workday.” See ECF Docket No. 13, p. 6, citing, SSR 83-10. Here, the ALJ found McAdams only capable of standing and walking for 4 hours in an 8-hour workday. (R. 19) McAdams thus reasons that the RFC is inconsistent with light work.

         I disagree. Although McAdams fell short of being able to perform the full range of “light work, ” he exceeds the requirements for “sedentary work.” (R. 19)[2] McAdams' RFC places him between the light and sedentary exertional levels. In such an instance, the ALJ's reliance upon a vocational expert is entirely appropriate. See Stephens v. Colvin, Civ. No. 15-2029, 2017 WL 1170899 at * 19 (M.D. Pa. March 13, 2017); Bryant v. Colvin, Civ. No. 14-981, 2015 WL 1401001 at * 11 (March 26, 2015); and Lackey v. Colvin, Civ. No. 12-516, 2013 WL 1903662 at * 3 (W.D. Pa. May 7, 2014) (stating that where “the ALJ was faced with a situation where the plaintiff's exertional limitations are ‘somewhere in the middle' between light and sedentary work … the ALJ properly relied on vocational expert testimony to find that there are jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform in light of her age, education and residual functional capacity.”) An ALJ is not required to rigidly apply exertional categories. Rather, “where additional limitations exist such that a claimant does not fall neatly within an exertional category, and ALJ should take those limitations into account when determining a claimant's RFC and appropriately reduce the occupational base to fit the claimant's individual characteristics at step five of the process.” See20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 416.969; SSR 83-12, 1983 WL 31253. If the ALJ is unclear as to the remaining occupational base given any additional limitations, then the ALJ must consult a vocational source.” Hensley v. Colvin, Civ. No. 13-27810, 2015 WL 56626 at * 17 (S.D. W.Va. Feb. 10, 2015). This is precisely what the ALJ did here. Consequently, I find no error with respect to the ALJ's conclusion that McAdams was capable of light work.

         3. Obesity

         McAdams also takes issue with the ALJ's consideration of his obesity in formulating the RFC. Social Security Ruling 02-1p provides guidance in determining how obesity is to be considered in evaluating such claims. See Diaz v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 503 (3d Cir. 2009). SSR 02-1p provides that “[t]he functions likely to be limited depend on many factors, including where excess weight is carried. An individual may have limitations in any of the exertional functions such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling. It may also affect ability to do postural functions, such as climbing, balance, stooping, and crouching.” SSR 02-1p. Given these parameters, an ALJ “must clearly set forth the reasons for his decision.” Diaz, 577 F.3d at 503, citing, Burnett v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 119 (3d Cir. 2000). Indeed, the ALJ must “consider the effects of obesity not only under the listings but also when assessing a claim at other steps of the sequential process, including when assessing an individual's residual functional capacity.” SSR 02-1p.

         Here, McAdams urges that the ALJ's decision is devoid of any discussion of how his obesity affects his impairments. After careful consideration, I agree. The ALJ found obesity to constitute a severe impairment at the second step of the analysis. The ALJ then determined that McAdams' obesity did not meet a Listing at the third step of the analysis. Within that same step, the ALJ stated that pursuant to SSR 02-1p, McAdams' obesity has been “considered in determining the claimant's residual functional capacity.” (R. 17) Yet when assessing his RFC, the ALJ offered absolutely no analysis as to the impact the obesity might have on his RFC. There is no discussion, for instance, regarding how McAdams' obesity might impact any of the exertional functions such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling or of how it might affect his ability to engage in such postural functions, such as climbing, balance, stooping, and crouching. Nor is there any discussion of how McAdams' obesity may exacerbate his other conditions such as his degenerative joint disease, his COPD, his diabetes, his peripheral neuropathy, or his fibromyalgia. The ALJ's reference to treatment notes, medical source statements and RFCs prepared by physicians do not constitute an adequate substitution for such explanation because those records do not speak to the impact of McAdams' obesity on his other impairments. Thus, contrary to the Defendant's suggestions otherwise, the ALJ's references to obesity are insufficient to allow me to conduct a meaningful review. Therefore I cannot say that the ALJ's RFC is based upon substantial analysis. Remand on this issue is necessary.

         I do not mean to suggest that the ALJ's ultimate conclusion on the issue of obesity may not be accurate. Rather, I state only that there is not enough information provided for me to gauge its accuracy.[3] There is no explicit analysis of the cumulative impact of McAdams' obesity on his RFC. A mere acknowledgment of an obligation to assess obesity alone without further analysis is legally insufficient. Ellis v. Astrue, 2010 WL 1817246 at *5 (E.D. Pa. April 30, 2010) (stating that, “[r]emand is required where a claimant alleges obesity, the ALJ finds ...

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