United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
C. MITCHELL United States Magistrate Judge.
Podvorec (“Plaintiff”) brings this action against
Nancy A. Berryhill (“Commissioner”), the acting
commissioner of the Social Security Administration
(“SSA”). Plaintiff argues that she was improperly
determined to not be disabled by the Commissioner because an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) gave too little
weight to the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating
orthopedic physician when determining Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The
Commissioner claims the medical opinions of Plaintiff's
treating orthopedic physician were contrary to
Plaintiff's medical record and even contradicted
themselves, justifying the ALJ's decision to give little
weight to them.
and the Commissioner both moved for summary judgment. (Docket
Nos. 14, 19.) After considering the parties' briefs,
Plaintiff's medical record, and applicable law, the Court
will: deny Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment
(Docket No. 14); grant the Commissioner's motion for
summary judgment (Docket No. 19); and affirm the
Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled.
(R. 1, 22.)
Review of Record and Legal Standards
protectively filed for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) on April 21, 2014, under Sections 216(i)
and 223(d) of the Social Security Act (“Act”).
(R. 22.) She alleged that her disability began on July 30,
2011. (R. 13.) Plaintiff's earnings record demonstrated
that she acquired “sufficient quarters of coverage to
remain insured through December 31, 2012” via the DIB
program. (R. 13.) To receive DIB, Plaintiff must show she was
disabled on or before December 31, 2012 (the date last
insured). (R. 13.)
DIB application was initially denied in late May 2014. (R.
90.) She next requested a hearing, which occurred on May 27,
2015 before ALJ Kathleen McBride. (R. 95, 115, 119.)
Plaintiff, her attorney, and impartial vocational expert Dr.
Fred Monaco (“VE”) attended the hearing. (R.
29-30.) The ALJ held that Plaintiff was not disabled. (R.
13.) Plaintiff asked the SSA Appeals Council to review the
ALJ's decision; the Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request on December 6, 2016, making the
ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final ruling on
Plaintiff's DIB claim. (R. 1, 8-9.) Plaintiff sought
judicial review of the Commissioner's final ruling at the
end of January 2017 by bringing this action pursuant to 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). (Docket No. 1-1.)
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 Plaintiff 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.
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 . . . .
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).
Plaintiff and the Commissioner did not discuss mental-health
issues in their briefs (Docket Nos. 15, 20), the Court will
not refer to them here.
discussed her physical ailments at her administrative
hearing. She had surgery on her neck (cervical spine) in
September 2011, her left shoulder in February 2012, and was
involved in a car accident in May 2012, shortly before she
was about to rejoin the workforce. (R. 38-39.) Plaintiff
admitted that her cervical fusion surgery reduced her pain
because she “was in horrible pain” before. (R.
42.) While some pain “wore on, ” she rated her
post-surgery neck pain as a two or three out of ten on the
pain scale. (R. 42, 51.) She also suffered from two to three
headaches per week following her neck surgery; she rated her
headaches as a three out of ten. (R. 50-51.) Plaintiff
testified that she had limited mobility in her neck after
surgery. (R. 43.) She also received relief after her left
shoulder arthroscopy, claiming that the pain reduced to a
three out of ten and later decreased further, saying
“[m]y left shoulder is good now.” (R. 45.) After
her late May 2012 car accident, she claimed her neck pain
could go up to a nine out of ten. (R. 54.) She also claimed
that pain interfered with her sleep such that she does not
“know what regular sleep is.” (R. 55.) As for
focus and concentration, she “can't get anything
done.” (R. 57.) Her complaints of low back pain
increased after her May 2012 car accident, though the pain
was a four out of ten when she took her Vicodin. (R. 47.)
before her May 2012 car accident, Plaintiff typically
performed household chores like cleaning, doing dishes, doing
laundry, cooking, buying groceries, and caring for her ill
husband. (R. 48-49.) She was unable to carry laundry hampers
over her head; she kicked them down the stairs instead. (R.
51-52.) While she used to scrub the floors daily, after her
neck surgery, the floors are “lucky if they get
scrubbed once every two weeks.” (R. 52.) Reading from a
book or a computer screen is difficult because pain
constrains her neck movement. (R. 52.)
Plaintiff's testimony ended, the ALJ focused on whether
Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work or any other
jobs in the national economy. Plaintiff served as a
private-duty licensed practical nurse, a semi-skilled,
medium-exertion job, in four of her past positions. (R. 63.)
She also worked as a practical nurse for a vocational school,
a semi-skilled job with heavy exertion. (R. 63.) The ALJ then
asked the VE to answer the following hypothetical question:
assume a hypothetical individual of the claimant's age,
education, and past work experience who is limited to light
work . . . except with occasional overhead reaching with the
left non-dominant upper extremity; frequent reaching overhead
with the right upper extremity; frequent bilateral reaching
in other directions; also frequent handling, fingering, and
The individual can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and
climb ramps and stairs but never crawl or climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds.
The individual should have no exposure to unprotected
heights, unprotected moving mechanical parts and no
concentrated exposure to extreme cold or vibration.
And, finally, the individual is able to perform simple,
routine tasks with few, if any, work place changes, meaning
the same duties are performed at the same ...