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Ellenberger v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 23, 2017

CHRISTINA LOUISE ELLENBERGER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

          Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge

         SYNOPSIS

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 15 and 17]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 16 and 18]. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 17] and denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment. [ECF No. 15].

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on or about September 2, 2012. [ECF Nos. 9-7 & 9-8].[2] In her applications, she alleged that since September 3, 2011, she had been disabled due to lower back pain, carpal tunnel left hand, left foot problems, depression, and stress. [ECF No. 9-8, at 217]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) David F. Brash held a hearing on June 4, 2014, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [ECF No. 9-3, at 38-74]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. at 66-71. In a decision dated September 5, 2014, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. [ECF No. 9-2, at 17-33]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. [ECF No. 9-2, at 1-4]. Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 15 and 17]. The issues are now ripe for my review.

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The 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, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that she 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. § 1382(a)(3)(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, 416.920. 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, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her 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).

         B. WHETHER THE ALJ IMPROPERLY DISREGARDED THE MEDICAL OPINIONS OF PLAINTIFF'S TREATING AND EXAMINING PHYSICIANS

         At Step Two of his analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: bilateral plantar fasciitis; migraine headaches; left carpal tunnel syndrome; thoracic compression/status post-vertebroplasty; lumbar degenerative disc disease and spondylosis; discogenic syndrome; lower extremity radiculopathy; chronic pain syndrome; avoidant and dependent personality disorder with paranoid and phobic factors; major depressive disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, bipolar disorder, and intellectual disability. [ECF No. 9-2, at 19-20]. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that Plaintiff could only stand for one hour, cumulatively, within an eight hour workday; never climb a ladder, rope, or scaffold; never crawl, kneel, stoop, crouch, or balance; only occasionally bend; only occasionally push, pull, or operate foot controls with the lower extremities; only occasionally climb ramps and stairs; would require a sit-stand option, at the work station, with intervals no more frequent than every thirty minutes; must avoid all exposure to unprotected heights, dangerous machinery, and like workplace hazards; was limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions and performing simple, routine tasks; was limited to no work-related contact with the public, only occasional and superficial interaction with co-workers, and no more than occasional supervision; and was limited to a low-stress work environment, which means no production rate pace work, but, rather, goal oriented work with only occasional and routine changes in work setting. [ECF No. 9-2, at 23-30]. The ALJ concluded that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including surveillance systems monitor, document preparer, and table worker. Id. at 30-32.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when weighing the medical opinion evidence. [ECF No. 16, at 12-15]. Specifically, she asserts that the ALJ improperly rejected the reports of Drs. Robert Hornsby, Gerald Street, Clifford Vogan, Julie Uran, and Robert Eisler, all of whom treated and/or examined Plaintiff for her physical or mental impairments. Id. After careful review, I find that Plaintiff's argument is without merit.

         The amount of weight accorded to medical opinions is well-established. Generally, the opinions of a claimant's treating physicians are entitled to substantial and, at times, even controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c).[3] To be entitled to controlling weight, however, the treating physician's opinion must be well supported by medical techniques and consistent with the other substantial evidence of record. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001). To determine the weight of a treating physician's opinion, the ALJ may consider a number of factors, including consistency, length of treatment, corroborating evidence, and supportability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927. As 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 Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999)). However, “where . . . the opinion of a treating physician conflicts with that of a non-treating, non-examining 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. ยง ...

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