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Dierker v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

December 1, 2017

ASHLEY LYNN DIERKER
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

          SYNOPSIS

          DONETTA W. AMBROSE SENIOR JUDGE, U.S. DISTRICT COURT .

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits and supplemental social security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, 1381-1383f. Plaintiff alleged disability due, inter alia, to migraine headaches. Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and upon hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The Appeals Council denied her request for review. The parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment are before the Court. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be denied, and Defendant's granted.

         OPINION

         I. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.

         A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 - 97, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted). Nonetheless, I am not required to read the ALJ's opinion “in a vacuum.” Knox v. Astrue, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28978, at *22 (W.D. Pa. May 26, 2010).

         II. THE PARTIES' MOTIONS

         Plaintiff complains that the ALJ crafted the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) that included medium work, without opinion evidence about the effect of headaches and anemia-related fatigue on Plaintiff's pace.

         The RFC read as follows:

…[T]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work…except: she is limited to work which is low stress, defined as her work requiring only routine, repetitive tasks, only occasional judgment, decision-making, and workplace changes, and only occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.

         In reaching this RFC, the ALJ noted that no physician had provided a medical source statement more restrictive than the RFC; indeed, as Plaintiff points out, the record contains no medical opinion regarding the effect of headaches and fatigue on her functionality. The ALJ considered Plaintiff's testimony “that her conditions affected her ability to talk, remember, complete tasks, concentrate, understand, follow instructions, use her hands, and get along with others.” Plaintiff testified to problems with memory and concentration, as well as mood swings and fatigue. The ALJ also considered medical records relating to Plaintiff's treatment for headaches, complicated by medication overuse. A headache physician noted lifestyle noncomplicance. The ALJ also recounted Plaintiff's various reports to providers regarding incapacitating headaches, alongside objective medical observations and Plaintiff's reports regarding the frequency with which the headaches caused her to miss work. For example, in January of 2015, she advised a physician that she had incapacitating headaches six days a month, but had only missed two days of work in six months due to the headaches. Regarding Plaintiff's diagnosis of iron-deficiency anemia, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff suffered from fatigue, but was also able to work full time during the times that fatigue was reported. He also noted that Plaintiff's physician was unsure that her fatigue was closely related to her anemia, due to stable hemoglobin. Noting Plaintiff's part-time work history, the ALJ stated that although her jobs were not performed at the level of substantial gainful employment, they constituted a “strong indication of no significant limitations in activities of daily living.”

         “[T]he ALJ is not precluded from reaching RFC determinations without outside medical expert review of each fact incorporated into the decision.” Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 362 (3d Cir. 2011). Moreover, “[t]here is no legal requirement that a physician have made the particular findings that an ALJ adopts in the course of determining an RFC. Surveying the medical evidence to craft an RFC is part of the ALJ's duties." Titterington v. Barnhart, 174 Fed.Appx. 6, 11 (3d Cir. 2006). Nonetheless, as Plaintiff correctly argues, it is rare that an RFC decision can be made without a physician's assessment of a Plaintiff's functional abilities. The reason for this rarity is because an ALJ, as a lay person, is not qualified to interpret raw medical data in functional terms. See, e.g., Moffatt v. Astrue, No. 10-226, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 103508, at * 6 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2010). In other words,

[T]he underlying determination is a medical determination, i.e., that the claimant can lift five, 20, 50, or 100 pounds, and can stand for 30 minutes, two hours, six hours, or eight hours. That determination must be made by a doctor. Once the doctor has determined how long the claimant can sit, stand or walk, and how much weight the claimant can lift and carry, then the ALJ, with the aid of a vocational expert if ...

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