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Al Muraiheg v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 18, 2017

NAHEDA FALEH AL MURAIHEG, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          ALAN N. BLOCH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         AND NOW, this 18th day of September, 2017, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court, upon review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision denying Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits under Subchapter XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381, et seq., finds that the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jesurum v. Secretary of U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied sub nom., 507 U.S. 924 (1993); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). See also Berry v. Sullivan, 738 F.Supp. 942, 944 (W.D. Pa. 1990) (if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed, as a federal court may neither reweigh the evidence, nor reverse, merely because it would have decided the claim differently) (citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981)).[1]

         Therefore, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 9) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 13) is GRANTED.

---------

Notes:

[1] The Court finds no merit in Plaintiff's arguments that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding him to be not disabled, and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.

Plaintiff's primary argument is that the ALJ erred by affording insufficient weight to the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Justin Aleia, D.O., and too much to those of the consultative examiner, Glenn Bailey, Ph.D., and of the state agency reviewing agent, Phyllis Brentzel, Psy.D. It is true, as Plaintiff asserts, that when assessing a claimant's application for benefits, the opinion of the claimant's treating physician generally is to be afforded significant weight. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). In fact, the regulations provide that for claims, such as this one, filed before March 27, 2017, a treating physician's opinion is to be given “controlling weight” so long as the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2); Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 43; Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429. As a result, the ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence, and not on the basis of the ALJ's own judgment or speculation, although he may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are provided. See Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429.

However, it is also important to remember that:

The ALJ -- not treating or examining physicians or State agency consultants -- must make the ultimate disability and RFC determinations. Although treating and examining physician opinions often deserve more weight than the opinions of doctors who review records, “[t]he law is clear . . . that the opinion of a treating physician does not bind the ALJ on the issue of functional capacity[.]” Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 197 n. 2 (3d Cir.2011). State agent opinions merit significant consideration as well.

Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011)(internal citations omitted in part). Here, the ALJ included in his decision a substantial discussion as to why he gave minimal weight to Dr. Aleia's opinion (R. 417), and greater weight to those of the consultative examiner, provided on May 1, 2013 (R. 309-22), and of the state agency reviewing agent, provided on May 14, 2013 (R. 108-11), and as to how he formulated Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (R. 27-35).

Although, in general, “the opinions of a doctor who has never examined a patient have less probative force as a general matter, than they would have had if the doctor had treated or examined him, ” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 320 (3d Cir. 2000)(internal quotations omitted), where “the opinion of a treating physician conflicts with that of a non-treating, non-examining physician, the ALJ may choose whom to credit.” Id. at 317. See also Dula v. Barnhardt, 129 Fed.Appx. 715, 718-19 (3d Cir. 2005). The ALJ, of course, “‘cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason, '” Morales, 225 F.3d at 317 (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429), and can only give the opinion of a non-treating, non-examining physician weight insofar as it is supported by evidence in the case record, considering such factors as the supportability of the opinion in the evidence, the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, including other medical opinions, and any explanation provided for the opinion. See SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180 (S.S.A.), at *2 (July 2, 1996). In certain cases, it would not be unwarranted to give more weight to the non-examining professional's opinion. See Salerno v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 152 Fed.Appx. 208 (3d Cir. 2005) (affirming an ALJ's decision to credit the opinion of the non-examining state agency reviewing psychologist because his opinion was more supported by the record than the opinions of the treating physician and the consultative examiner).

Plaintiff challenges the relative weight given by the ALJ to the opinions in the record on various grounds. He asserts, for instance, that the non-treating reviewers' opinions were given more than a year prior to the opinion of Dr. Aleia and without the benefit of treatment notes from Stairways Behavioral Health that post-date those opinions. Generally speaking, there is no specific limit on how much time may pass between a medical professional's report or opinion and the ALJ's decision relying on it. See Chandler, 667 F.3d at 361. Indeed, “there is always a time lapse between the consultant's report and the ALJ hearing and decision.” Id. However, Plaintiff argues that the fact that the medical evidence post-dating the opinions of Drs. Bailey and Brentzel, but to which Dr. Aleia did have access, demonstrates that the time gap in this case is relevant. Indeed, where there is a substantial amount of new evidence between the date on which an opinion upon which an ALJ relies and the date on which the ALJ renders his or her decision, remand may be warranted. See Cadillac v. Barnhart, 84 Fed.Appx. 163, 168-69 (3d Cir. 2003); Grimes v. Colvin, 2016 WL 246963, at *2 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 21, 2016). However, Dr. Aleia himself in no way suggested that his opinion was meant to account for any changes in Plaintiff's condition between May of 2013, when the non-treating reviewers offered their opinions, and October 17, 2014, when he offered his own. (R. 417). Moreover, while there is in fact evidence to which the non-treating reviewers had no access, the ALJ was aware of and considered and discussed said evidence in weighing the opinions.

Plaintiff further argues that the record does not support Dr. Bailey's findings of various moderate restrictions, adopted by Dr. Brentzel and the ALJ, because his own report is inconsistent with such a finding. He specifically argues, inter alia, that Dr. Bailey's assessment of a Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score of 45 is inconsistent with the mostly moderate limitations to which he opined. However, GAF scores do not directly correlate to a determination of whether an individual is or is not disabled under the Act:

The GAF scale, which is described in the DSM-III-R (and the DSM-IV), is the scale used in the multiaxial evaluation system endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association. It does not have a direct correlation to the severity ...

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