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Huffine v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 21, 2017

MISTY D. HUFFINE, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant. Docket Nos. 14 & 18



         I. Introduction

         Misty Huffine (“Petitioner”) contends that the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) incorrectly determined that she was not disabled because Administrative Law Judge Karl Alexander (“ALJ”) did not give adequate weight to the medical opinion of her treating psychiatrist as compared to the contrary medical opinions of state consultative examiners when determining her mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The Commissioner responds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision to give less weight to Petitioner's treating psychiatrist because the psychiatrist's medical opinion with respect to Petitioner's mental RFC did not comport with other evidence in Petitioner's medical record.

         Presently before the Court for disposition are cross motions for summary judgment. (Docket Nos. 14, 18). Upon considering the parties' briefs, Petitioner's medical record, and applicable law, the Court will: deny Petitioner's motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 14); grant the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment (Docket No. 18); and affirm the Commissioner's determination that Petitioner is not disabled. (R. 1, 36.)

         II. Review of Record and Legal Standards

         Petitioner protectively filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) payments on June 5, 2013, under Section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act (“Act”). (R. 41, 103.) Her application was initially denied on August 15, 2013. (R. 103.) She then sought a hearing, which was set for February 27, 2015, before ALJ Karl Alexander. (R. 113, 123, 127.) Petitioner, her counsel, and impartial vocational expert Linda Dezack (“VE”) attended the hearing. (R. 15.) The ALJ held that Petitioner was not disabled. (R. 36.) Petitioner sought review of the ALJ's decision by the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) Appeals Council. (R. 7.) The Appeals Council denied Petitioner's request for review in mid-September 2016, instating the ALJ's decision as the Commissioner's decision. (R. 1.) Petitioner filed this action in mid-November 2016 under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. (Docket No. 3.)

         In reviewing an administrative determination of the Commissioner, the question before any court is whether there is substantial evidence in the agency record to support the findings of the Commissioner that Petitioner did not sustain her burden of demonstrating that she was disabled within the meaning of the Act. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Adorno v. Shalala, 40 F.3d 43 (3d Cir. 1994).

         42 U.S.C. § 405(g) provides that:

The court shall have power to enter, upon the pleadings and transcript of the record, a judgment affirming, modifying, or reversing the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security, with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .

         Substantial evidence is “‘more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401; (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422 (3d Cir. 1999).

         Because Petitioner and the Commissioner limited their arguments on appeal to whether Petitioner is disabled due to mental-health issues (Docket Nos. 15, 19-20), the Court will focus on the record relevant to those issues.

         Petitioner appeared with counsel at the hearing held on February 27, 2015. (R. 15.) Petitioner described her mental condition as “[c]onstantly depressed . . . I have a lot of anxiety” and does not leave her house often. (R. 26.) She does not like “to be around people” and exits her home only to “take the kids to the doctor's or something.” (R. 26.) She confirmed that it is painful for her to leave her home. (R. 26.) As for her ability “to get things done, ” petitioner noted she had no energy, could not lift laundry baskets, and that her kids had to help her. (R. 27.) She also testified that she struggles with concentrating and finishing tasks. (R. 27-28.) When she began discussing her pain from carpel tunnel, she became emotional. (R. 28) (Petitioner's counsel remarked “now these crying spells, is that . . . happening a lot?”) Petitioner “cr[ies] every day” and her emotional state can swing from being “in a good mood” to “depressed” in the next second. (R. 28.) To help manage her mental and emotional issues, she sees a therapist twice a month and consults with her psychiatrist, Dr. Brinkley. (R. 29.) She attributes her mental and emotional issues to “chronic pain.” (R. 29.)

         After Petitioner's testimony concluded, the ALJ focused on whether she could work. Petitioner did not have past relevant work. (R. 20.) The ALJ posed the following hypothetical to the VE:

assume a hypothetical individual of the Claimant's age, educational background, and work history such as it is, who would be able to perform a range of sedentary work.
Would require a sit/stand option in the form of being able to change positions about every hour for three to four minutes without breaking task. Could perform postural movements occasionally, except could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
Should not do any frequent or repetitive neck movements, and no more than occasional overhead lifting or reaching. Should have no concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, wet or humid conditions, vibrations, or environmental pollutants, and no exposure to hazards.
Should work in a low stress environment, with no production line or assembly line type of pace, no independent decisionmaking responsibilities, and minimal changes in the daily work routine. Would be limited to unskilled work, involving only routine and repetitive instructions and ...

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