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Sechrist v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

November 6, 2017

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

          Carlson Magistrate Judge


          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge

         Plaintiff, Debra J. Sechrist, filed a complaint on July 19, 2016, naming as Defendant Carolyn W. Colvin, then Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration.[2] Because Plaintiff Sechrist ("Plaintiff) sought judicial review of the Commissioner's ("Commissioner") final decision, this matter was referred to Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson for the preparation and recommended disposition under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b).

         For the reasons that follow, Magistrate Judge Carlson's Report and Recommendation is adopted in full, and final judgment is entered against Plaintiff.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Magistrate Judge Carlson's comprehensive disposition of May 17, 2017, [3] recommended that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed, and that Plaintiffs request for benefits under Title II be denied.[4] Because I write for the parties, I will conserve judicial resources, not rehash Magistrate Judge Carlson's Report and Recommendation, and will only address Plaintiff's objections.

         II. LAW

         a. Standard of Review

         When considering a social security appeal, the Court has plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner.[5] However, my review of the Commissioner's findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is to determine whether those findings are supported by "substantial evidence."[6] The factual findings of the Commissioner, "if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. ..."[7] "Substantial evidence does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."[8] Substantial evidence has been described as more than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance.[9] "It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."[10] The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has stated:

[O]ur decisions make clear that determination of the existence vel non of substantial evidence is not merely a quantitative exercise. A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the [Commissioner] 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)-or if it really constitutes not evidence but mere conclusion.[11]

         Therefore, a court reviewing the Commissioner's decision must scrutinize the record as a whole.[12]

         b. Objections to a Report and Recommendation

         Upon designation, a magistrate judge may "conduct hearings, including evidentiary hearings, and to submit to a judge of the court proposed findings of fact and recommendations."[13] Once filed, this Report and Recommendation is disseminated to the parties in the case who then have the opportunity to file written objections.[14] When such objections are filed timely, the District Court must conduct a de novo review of those portions of the report to which objections are made.[15] Although the standard of review for objections is de novo, the extent of review lies within the discretion of the District Court, and the Court may otherwise rely on the recommendations of the magistrate judge to the extent it deems proper.[16]

         For portions of the Report and Recommendation to which no objection is made, the Court should, as a matter of good practice, "satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation."[17] Regardless of whether timely objections are made by a party, the District Court may accept, not accept, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.[18]

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs primary objection to Magistrate Judge Carlson's Report and Recommendation pertains to the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ") assessment of Plaintiff s permitted exposure to pulmonary irritants.[19] Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by giving the medical evaluations of Rosemary Wiegand, M.D., Plaintiffs treating physician, less weight than the medical opinion of Catherine Smith, M.D., a non-examining State agency reviewing physician.[20] Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ did not properly consider Dr. Wiegand's handwritten restriction: "No exposure to fumes, exhaust, strong perfumes, [or] solvents."[21]

         Having considered the Plaintiff's arguments, in conjunction with Magistrate Judge Carlson's Report and Recommendation and the Commissioner's responding Brief, I find Plaintiff's objections without merit. The ALJ based her decision on substantial evidence, and I accordingly adopt in full Magistrate Judge Carlson's Report and Recommendation. My reasoning for this conclusion follows.

         a. The ALJ did not commit reversible error in according greater weight to Dr. Smith than Dr. Wiegand.

         Plaintiff objects to the ALJ according less weight to her treating physician, Dr. Rosemary Wiegand, than to non-examining State agency physician, Dr. Catherine Smith.[22] The ALJ accorded more weight to Dr. Smith's medical opinion evidence than Dr. Wiegand's "because it [was] consistent with the clinical evidence and the [Plaintiffs] treatment history."[23]

         When, as here, "a conflict in the [medical] evidence exists, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason."[24] "The ALJ must consider all the evidence and give some reason for discounting the evidence she rejects."[25] While Dr. Wiegand, Plaintiff's treating physician, "should be accorded great weight, " an ALJ "may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are provided."[26]

         Reviewing the treatment records for the relative period, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was generally stable "with some episodes of treatment of exacerbation."[27] The ALJ also found that the treatment records indicated Plaintiff's increased asthma symptoms correlated with seasonal allergies, but that her "lungs were clear to auscultation and her respiratory effort was normal."[28] During another instance of asthma symptom exacerbation, the treatment records show Plaintiff was given a steroid taper, but then received "no significant follow up treatment" and that she only needed her rescue inhaler "one to two times a week."[29] While Plaintiff later experienced an "upper respiratory infection/sinusitis symptoms associated with her asthma, " she was treated with an "anti-biotic and steroid medication."[30] After being given this medication, the treatment records indicate that Plaintiff was neither hospitalized nor received "significant follow-up treatment."[31]

         The ALJ noted that Plaintiff was hospitalized on May 13, 2014, for exacerbated asthma symptoms.[32] The treatment records, however, show Plaintiff's conditions improved once she "was given medication and nebulizer treatments."[33] The hospital discharged Plaintiff because her lungs were clear as to auscultation.[34]While Plaintiff saw her primary doctor for treatment of cold symptoms a few months later, the physical examination showed "normal respiratory effort and ...

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