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Podvorec v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 28, 2017

MANDY JEANNE PODVOREC, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant. Docket Nos. 14 & 19

          MEMORANDUM OPINION[1]

          ROBERT C. MITCHELL United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Mandy 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.

         Plaintiff 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.)

         II. Review of Record and Legal Standards

         Plaintiff 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.)

         Plaintiff's 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.)

         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 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. 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 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.

         Plaintiff 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.)

         Just 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.)

         Once 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 feeling.
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 ...

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