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Kozemchak v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 16, 2017

LORETTA ANN KOZEMCHAK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.

         Pending before the Court are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 10 and 12). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 11 and 13). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 12).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (''Commissioner'') denying her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”) pursuant to the Social Security Act (''Act''). Plaintiff filed her application alleging she has been disabled since February 1, 2006. (ECF No. 8-8, p. 4) Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Natalie Appetta, held a hearing on September 24, 2014. (ECF No. 8-3). On October 9, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (ECF No. 8-2, pp. 15-30).

         After exhausting all of his administrative remedies thereafter, Plaintiff filed this action. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 10 and 12). The issues are now ripe for review.

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court has jurisdiction to review decisions to deny a complainant's application for benefits under the Act. When this court has jurisdiction to review a decision to deny an application for benefits under the Act, the standard of review 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). Additionally, 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 plaintiff 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).

         B. Weighing Opinion Evidence as it relates to the Residual Functional Capacity

         I consider Plaintiff's argument regarding the weighing of opinion evidence relating to her residual functional capacity (“RFC”)[2] first, as I believe it is a threshold issue. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in weighing the mental opinion evidence when formulating her RFC such that remand is warranted. (ECF No. 11, pp. 12-14). After a review of the evidence, I agree.

         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 a non-examining source. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(1). In addition, the ALJ generally will give more weight to opinions from a treating physician, “since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.” Id. § 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 ...


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