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Patton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 27, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant




         On December 22, 2016, Plaintiff, Ginger Patton, filed a complaint seeking review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's (“Commissioner”) denial of her application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Doc. 1). On March 1, 2017, Defendant filed an Answer and Transcript. (Docs. 7 and 8). On April 11, 2017, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of the complaint. (Doc. 9). On June 9, 2017, Defendant filed a brief in opposition. (Doc. 13). A Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) was issued by United States Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson on October 12, 2017, recommending that the appeal be denied, the decision of the Commissioner be affirmed, final judgment be entered in favor of Defendant and against Plaintiff, and the Clerk of Court be directed to close this matter. (Doc. 15). No objections have been filed, and the matter is now ripe for review. Having reviewed the reasoning of the Magistrate Judge, the R&R will be adopted in part.

         Standard of Review

         When neither party objects to a magistrate judge's report and recommendation, the district court is not statutorily required to review the report, under de novo or any other standard. Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 152 (1985); 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C). Nevertheless, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has held that it is better practice to afford some level of review to dispositive legal issues raised by the report. Henderson v. Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 878 (3d Cir. 1987), writ denied 484 U.S. 837 (1987); Garcia v. I.N.S., 733 F.Supp. 1554, 1555 (M.D. Pa. 1990) (Kosik, J.) (stating “the district court need only review the record for plain error or manifest injustice”). In the absence of objections, review may properly be limited to ascertaining whether there is clear error that not only affects the rights of the plaintiff, but also seriously affects the integrity, fairness, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Cruz v. Chater, 990 F.Supp. 375, 377 (M.D. Pa. 1998) (Vanaskie, J.).


         Initially, the Magistrate Judge appropriately sets forth the standard for reviewing a Social Security appeal and the Sequential Evaluation Process used by an administrative law judge to determine whether the claimant is disabled, which are herein adopted as such. (Doc. 15, pp. 7-12). The Magistrate Judge also reviews the medical records and the ALJ's decision, also herein adopted as such. (Id. at pp. 4-7). Ultimately, Magistrate Judge Carlson determines that the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet any Impairments Listings at Step Three and that the ALJ's RFC determination that Plaintiff could perform light work with some limitations are supported by substantial evidence and recommends that this Court affirm the decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at pp. 13-20).

         Neither party having objected to the Magistrate Judge's recommendations, this Court has the duty to review the R&R for clear error. Upon review of the administrative record and the R&R, Court finds no clear error with the R&R's recommendation that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision at Step Three. However, there is clear error with the R&R's recommendation that the ALJ's RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence because, in determining Plaintiff could perform light work, and thus lift and/ or carry up to twenty (20) pounds, the ALJ effectively rejected the only medical opinion of record regarding the amount of weight Plaintiff could lift and/ or carry, which was ten (10) pounds, and seemingly substituted his own opinion for that of the medical opinion provided. (Tr. 18).

         The responsibility for deciding a claimant's RFC rests with the administrative law judge. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1546. The Court recognizes that the residual functional capacity assessment must be based on a consideration of all the evidence in the record, including the testimony of the claimant regarding her activities of daily living, medical records, lay evidence, and evidence of pain. See Burnett v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 121-122 (3d Cir 2000). The Commissioner's regulations define medical opinions as “statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s), including [a claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [a claimant] can still do despite impairments(s), and [a claimant's] physical or mental restrictions.” 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(a)(2). Regardless of its source, the ALJ is required to evaluate every medical opinion received. See 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c).

         In arriving at the RFC, an administrative law judge should be mindful that the preference for the treating physician's opinion has been recognized by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and by all of the federal circuits. See, e.g., Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 316-18 (3d Cir. 2000). This is especially true when the treating physician's opinion “reflects expert judgment based on a continuing observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged time.” Morales, 225 F.3d at 317; Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429; see also 20 CFR § 416.927(d)(2)(i)(1999) (“Generally, the longer a treating source has treated you and the more times you have been seen by a treating source, the more weight we will give to the source's medical opinion.”).

         However, when the treating physician's opinion conflicts with a non-treating, non-examining physician's opinion, the ALJ may choose whom to credit in his or her analysis, but “cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.” Morales, 225 F.3d 316-18. It is within the ALJ's authority to determine which medical opinions he rejects and accepts, and the weight to be given to each opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927. The ALJ is permitted to give great weight to a medical expert's opinion if the assessment is well-supported by the medical evidence of record.

         Pursuant to SSR 96-6p, an administrative law judge may only assign less weight to a treating source opinion based on a non-treating, non-examining medical opinion in “appropriate circumstances.” SSR 96-6p, 1996 SSR LEXIS 3. This regulation does not define “appropriate circumstances, ” but gives an example that “appropriate circumstances” exist when a non-treating, non-examining source had a chance to review “a complete case record . . . which provides more detailed and comprehensive information than what was available to the individual's treating source.” Id. (emphasis added).

         Regardless of what weight an administrative law judge affords to medical opinions, the administrative law judge has the duty to adequately explain the evidence that he or she rejects or affords lesser weight. Diaz v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 505-06 (3d Cir. 2009). “The ALJ's explanation must be sufficient enough to permit the court to conduct a meaningful review.” Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 119-20 (3d Cir. 2000).

         Additionally, in choosing to reject the evaluation of a treating physician, an ALJ may not make speculative inferences from medical reports and may reject the treating physician's opinions outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence. Morales, 225 F.3d at 316-18. An ALJ may not reject a written medical opinion of a treating physician based on his or her own credibility judgments, speculation or lay opinion. Id. An ALJ may not disregard the medical opinion of a treating physician based solely on his or her own “amorphous impressions, gleaned from the record and from his evaluation of the [claimant]'s credibility.” Id. As one court has stated, “Judges, including administrative law judges of the Social Security Administration, must be ...

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