United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge
Sara Lynn Toner ("Toner") brings this action
pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) for review of the
ALJ's decision denying of her claim supplemental security
income (SSI) under Titles XVI of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C. §§401-34, 1381-1383f. Toner
alleges a disability beginning on January 5,
based upon both physical and mental impairments. Her claims
were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 31)
Following a hearing before an ALJ, during which both Toner
and a vocational expert ("VE") testified, the ALJ
again denied her claims. The ALJ concluded that Toner had the
residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform a
reduced range of sedentary work with some restrictions. (R.
35) Toner appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary
Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos.  and . After
careful consideration, the case is affirmed in its entirety.
Standard of Review
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 "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). 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.
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.5 423(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).
contends that the ALJ's decision is not supported by
substantial evidence of record. More specifically, she takes
issue with the "significant weight" that the ALJ
gave to the opinion of the state agency non-examining
physician and with the "limited or little weight"
to the findings of every other treating or examining source.
The amount of weight accorded to medical opinions is
well-established. The ALJ will give more weight to opinions
from a treating physician "since those sources are
likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a
detailed, longitudinal picture of [a] claimant's medical
impairments) and may bring a unique perspective to the
medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective
findings alone or from reports of individual examinations,
such as consultative examinations or brief
hospitalizations." 20 C.F.R. § 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 claimants]
impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with other substantial evidence [of] record,
" he must give that opinion controlling weight.
Id. Also, "the more consistent an opinion is
with the record as a whole, the more weight [the ALJ
generally] will give to that opinion." Id., §
event of conflicting medical evidence, the Court of Appeals
for the Third Circuit has explained:
"A cardinal principle guiding disability determinations
is that the ALJ accord treating physicians' reports great
weight, especially 'when their opinions reflect expert
judgment based on continuing observation of the patient's
condition over a prolonged period of time.'"
Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000)
(quoting, Plummerv. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999)).
However, "where ... the opinion of a treating physician
conflicts with that of a non-treating nonexamining physician,
the ALJ may choose whom to credit" and may reject the
treating physician's assessment if such rejection is
based on contradictory medical evidence. Id.
Similarly, under 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2), the opinion
of a treating physician is to be given controlling weight
only when it is well-supported by medical evidence and is
consistent with other evidence in the record.
Becker v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec, Civ. No. 10-2517,
2010 WL 5078238, at * 5 (3d Cir. Dec. 14, 2010). Although the
ALJ may choose who to credit when faced with a conflict, he
"cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong
reason." Diaz v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec, 577
F.3d 500, 505 (3d Cir. 2009). Additionally, I note that state
agency opinions merit significant consideration. See SSR
96-6p ("Because state agency medical and psychological
consultants ... are experts in the social security disability
programs, ... 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(f) and
416.927(f) require [ALJs] ... to consider their findings of
fact about the nature and severity of an individual's
careful consideration, I reject Toner's contentions. The
ALJ's decision to give the opinion offered by Toner's
treating psychiatrist, Dr. Ittner, "little weight"
was entirely appropriate. The ALJ explained that Dr.
Ittner's opinion "appears to have been heavily based
on the claimant's subjective reports, and is not
consistent with her treatment record, including the treatment
notes through Stairways." (R. 44) The ALJ found
Toner's statements concerning the intensity, persistence,
and limiting effects of her impairments to lack credibility.
(R. 37) Toner did not challenge this finding on appeal.
Consequently, the ALJ's discounting of Ittner's
opinion on this basis is consistent with the case law.
See Roy v. Colvin, 656 Fed.Appx. 816, 818
(9th Cir. 2016) (finding that substantial evidence
of record supported the ALJ's rejection of the treating
physician's opinion where it appeared to be derived from
the claimant's self-reports which the ALJ found to lack
credibility, and where it was inconsistent with other
evidence of record.). Additionally, substantial evidence of
record supports the ALJ's conclusion that Dr.
Ittner's opinion was inconsistent with the medical
records. For instance, Toner's global assessment
functioning (GAF") score improved from 20 to 45 by
August of 2012 and to 55 in January of 2014. (R. 40-41)
Further, treatment notes described Toner as
"stable" and "doing well" and as having
"fairly normal" mental status examinations. (R. 41)
Toner herself reported an improved mood with less anxiety and
depression. (R. 41) Records from September of 2013 indicated
that Toner had progressed with her treatment and had been
doing "very well" on her medication. (R. 41) Only a
few months later, in December of 2013, Toner began her
treatment at Stairways Behavioral Health. Her treatment goals
included "managing anxiety and symptoms of PTSD"
which, as the ALJ noted, "are not suggestive of a
disabling level of impairment." (R. 41) Simply stated,
these records are inconsistent with a finding that Toner had
marked or extreme limitations in her ability to interact with
co-workers or supervisors, or to respond to work pressures in
a usual work setting, or to changes in a routine work
setting, or that Toner would likely call off 3 days in a 5
day work week or would need 5 to 8 breaks per day in excess
of 5-10 minutes per 8 hour workday. (R. 476).
suggests that the opinion offered by Dr. Glenn Bailey, who
performed a consultative examination in August of 2010,
supports Dr. Ittner's opinion and that the ALJ erred in
not giving more weight to Dr. Ittner's and Dr.
Bailey's opinions. This argument is not compelling. As
the ALJ noted, "[s]ome of Dr. Bailey's opinion is
fairly consistent with the claimant's mental health
treatment records, although it is given only limited weight
because it predates the period at issue in this case and also
represents just a snapshot assessment of functioning."
(R. 42) Indeed, Dr. Bailey assigned Toner a GAF score of 55,
indicating only moderate symptoms. (R. 42) Further, although
Dr. Bailey assessed "marked limitations in responding
appropriately to pressure and change in the work setting, ...
[no] more than slight limitations were assessed in the
claimant's ability to work ...