United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
C. Carlson United States Magistrate Judge.
Miranda D. Michael (“Ms. Michael”), an adult
individual who resides within the Middle District of
Pennsylvania, seeks judicial review of the final decision of
the Acting Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying her claims for
Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. In
this Social Security Appeal, Michael advances one primary
claim of error alleging that the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) failed to accord greater weight to her
treating physician's opinion than to the opinion of a
non-treating, non-examining state agency physician. (Doc. 15
p. 8.) She argues that, in turn, because the ALJ failed to
adopt her treating physician's opinion, the Step 5
determination that Michael was not disabled is unsupported by
substantial evidence. (Doc. 15 p. 14.) In the instant case,
the ALJ reviewed the medical opinion of Ms. Michael's
treating physician, which concluded that Ms. Michael was
disabled, and the opinion of a state agency medical source,
which found that she retained the residual functional
capacity to perform a range of light work with limitations.
The ALJ resolved the case at Step 4 and concluded that Ms.
Michael was not disabled because her residual functional
capacity enabled her to return to her past relevant work.
the deferential standard of review that applies to Social
Security Appeals, which calls upon us to simply determine
whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings,
we conclude that substantial evidence does exist in this
case, which not only justified the ALJ's evaluation of
the medical opinion evidence, but justified Ms. Michael's
residual functional capacity. Therefore, for the reasons set
forth below, the Commissioner's decision is affirmed, and
Ms. Michael's request for relief is denied.
Statement of Facts and of the Case
September 20, 2012, Ms. Michael protectively filed
applications for disability benefits under both Title II and
XVI of the Social Security Act. In Ms. Michael's Title II
and Title XVI applications, she alleged that she had been
disabled since June 7, 2012. (Tr. 149; 151.) According to Ms.
Michael, her claim of disability is based upon a series of
aliments including anemia, a rare lung disease, diabetes,
extreme weight loss, and pneumonia. (Tr. 179.) At the time of
Ms. Michael's applications, and the onset of her alleged
disability, she was in her late 50's and was considered
an individual of “advanced age” according to the
regulations promulgated under the authority of the Act. (Tr.
54.) See 20 C.F.R. §404.1563(e). Ms. Michaels
is a high school graduate and attended Consolidated School of
Business. (Tr. 41.) Her work history report includes
employment spanning from 2001 through 2012, in which she was
employed as a collections representative and an
administrative secretary. (Tr. 190.)
Michael's health ailments related to her disability
claims began in early 2012. In January 2012, Ms. Michael
presented to Memorial Hospital's emergency department
with shortness of breath, chest pain, and a cough. (Tr.
257-258.) Ms. Michael was admitted and treated for pneumonia.
(Id.) At her two week follow up, Ms. Michael
reported she was feeling better but complained of decreased
energy, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss. (Tr. 360.)
After testing, Ms. Michael was diagnosed with pulmonary
nodules and underwent video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery
(“VATS”) in June 2012. (Tr. 433; 421.) Ms.
Michael started taking Prednisone, an oral steroid, to treat
her pulmonary condition. (Tr. 543.) By September 2012, after
continuing treatment with Prednisone, Ms. Michael's
pulmonary condition was improving, she was no longer losing
weight, and she was less symptomatic. (Tr. 317.) Ms. Michael
reported she was continuing to feel well and exercising
sporadically (Tr. 386) and that her appetite was
significantly improving. (Tr. 603.)
months later Ms. Michael was admitted into York Hospital from
May 6, 2013 through May 11, 2013 after presenting with chest
pain. (Tr. 621-622.) A CT scan revealed an increasing mass in
her left lung. (Tr. 642.) Ms. Michael informed the treating
doctor that steroids had helped her in the past and steroids
were administered. (Tr. 642; 644.) By the following month,
Ms. Michael's symptoms had improved and she was starting
to feel better. (Tr. 581.) She had gained 32 pounds since
November 2012. (Tr. 666.) Unfortunately, in August 2013, Ms.
Michael suffered a heart attack and successfully underwent a
stent procedure in her right coronary artery. (Tr. 875.) The
doctor that performed her surgery believed if Ms. Michael
began taking particular medications, she would do well. (Tr.
876.) In September 2013, Ms. Michael started cardiac
rehabilitation. (Tr. 815.) She began walking 20-30 minutes
daily and using light free weights to perform resistance
exercises. (Id.) In January 2014, Ms. Michael
reported she was feeling better and her condition was
improving. (Tr. 810.)
Michael's disability applications were initially denied
on November 19, 2012 (Tr. 75) and on January 4, 2013, she
sought a hearing to contest the denials. (Tr. 82.) On June
27, 2014, the ALJ conducted a hearing via telephone
considering Ms. Michael's disability applications. (Tr.
38-54.) At this hearing, the ALJ heard testimony from Ms.
Michael and Sheryl Bustin, an impartial vocational expert.
(Id.) Ms. Michael testified that she suffered from
pain due to her lung nodules and pulmonary condition. (Tr.
41-42.) She testified that she has back pain everyday as
well, and although she takes medication for it, the pain is
still there. (Tr. 42.) Ms. Michael reported that since she
quit smoking cigarettes, she has had no improvement with her
pulmonary condition. (Id.) She testified that when
she walks, she frequently gets dizzy and she believes it
stems from the medication she is prescribed. (Tr. 44.) Ms.
Michael testified she could not return to her previous
position because she is too absent-minded, cannot remember
very well, cannot stay focused, and cannot sit or stand for a
long period of time. (Tr. 47.) She reported she could not
walk for more than one block without getting out of breath
and could not lift anything over ten pounds without a strain
on her chest. (Tr. 48.)
also received and reviewed a plethora of medical records from
multiple medical sources (Tr. 257-996), and had the benefit
of two opinions from treating physician Dr.
Murudkar (Tr. 574-575; 994-996), and two opinions
from non-examining state agency physician Dr.
Tran. (Tr. 54-67.) These medical source opinions
reached markedly different conclusions regarding Ms.
Michael's capacity to perform work. Dr. Murudkar
completed a two-page check block residual functional capacity
questionnaire in February 2013. (Tr. 574-575.) Dr. Murudkar
concluded that Ms. Michael's impairments were severe
enough that they would constantly interfere with her
attention and concentration to perform work related tasks.
(Tr. 575.) Dr. Murudkar determined Ms. Michael would need to
recline or lie down during an eight-hour workday in excess of
the typical permitted breaks, could only walk one city block
without rest or significant pain, could sit for 15 minutes
and stand/walk for ten minutes, could sit for four hours and
stand/walk for two hours out of an eight-hour work day and
could occasionally life more less than ten pounds but never
anything heavier. (Tr. 574-575.) Dr. Murudkar further stated
that as a result of Ms. Michael's impairments, she would
be absent from work more than four times per month. (Tr.
575.) Ultimately, Dr. Murudkar opined that Ms. Michael was
not physically capable of working an eight-hour work day five
days per week. (Id.)
contrast, Dr. Tran, the non-examining state agency physician,
reviewed the medical evidence of record as of November 2012,
and concluded that Ms. Michael was physically capable of
lifting and carrying twenty pounds occasionally and ten
pounds frequently; sitting for six hours in an eight-hour
workday; and standing and walking for six hours in an
eight-hour workday. (Tr. 58-59.) Thus, Dr. Tran opined that
although Ms. Michael did have some limitations in the
performance of certain work activities, those limitations
would not prevent her from performing her past relevant work.
the hearing, on July 24, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision
denying Ms. Michael's applications for disability
benefits. (Tr. 22-30.) In this decision, the ALJ first found
that Ms. Michael met the insured requirements of the Act
through March 31, 2017. (Tr. 24.) At Step 2 of the five-step
sequential analysis process that applies to Social Security
disability claims, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Michael
experienced the following severe impairments: diabetes,
coronary artery disease, hypertension, anemia, and nodular
lung disease. (Id.) At Step 3 of this sequential
analysis, the ALJ concluded that none of Ms. Michael's
impairments met a listing that would define her as per
se disabled. (Tr. 19-20.)
considering Step 4, the ALJ fashioned Ms. Michael's
residual functional capacity. The ALJ concluded that Ms.
Michael could perform a range of light work with limitations.
(Tr. 26.) Specifically, the ALJ noted that Ms. Michael can
only occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and
crawl. (Id.) Further, the ALJ added the limitation
that Ms. Michael should avoid concentrated exposure to
pulmonary irritants such as smoke, dusts, gases, fumes, high
humidity, and temperature extremes and she should perform
work that can be done either sitting or standing.
reaching this conclusion, the ALJ partially discounted Ms.
Michael's statements concerning the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms, noting
that many of her allegations are not documented in the
evidence of record. (Tr. 26-29.) The ALJ then carefully
canvassed the clinical, diagnostic, and medical opinion
evidence before concluding that Ms. Michael retained the
residual functional capacity to perform a range of light
work. (Id.) The ALJ noted that because Ms. Michael
developed coronary artery disease after the state agency
medical opinions were rendered, certain limitations were
necessary to accommodate her medical condition. (Tr. 29.) The
ALJ added environmental restrictions due to her pulmonary
history. (Id.) In addition, the ALJ added postural
limitations in order to permit Ms. Michael to alternate
between sitting and standing. (Id.) The ALJ
explained that a sit/stand option was necessary because
although Ms. Michael's coronary issues are stable,
activities such as frequent climbing or crawling would be
more physically demanding than work where she primarily
stands all day. (Id.) Having made these findings,
the ALJ concluded, consistent with the testimony of the
vocational expert that Ms. Michael could return to her past
relevant work, as none of her impairments precluded her from
performing those positions actually and generally. (Tr. 30.)
The ALJ did not reach analysis at Step 5, as he determined
Ms. Michael was not disabled.
exhausted her administrative remedies with respect to this
adverse decision, Ms. Michael filed the instant appeal. (Doc.
1.) On appeal, Ms. Michael argues that the ALJ erred in
according inadequate weight to the opinion of her treating
physician. (Doc. 15 p. 8.) She then contends that, in turn,
because the ALJ failed to adopt her treating physician's
opinion, the Step 5 determination is unsupported by
substantial evidence. (Doc. 15 p. 14.) This case is fully
briefed and is now ripe for resolution.
Substantial Evidence Review - the Role of this
reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a
claimant's application for benefits, this Court's
review is limited to the question of whether the findings of
the final decision-maker are supported by substantial
evidence in the record. See 42 U.S.C. §405(g);
Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198,
200 (3d Cir. 2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d
533, 536 (M.D.Pa. 2012). 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.” Pierce v.
Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988). Substantial
evidence is less than a preponderance of the evidence but
more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of evidence is not
substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores countervailing
evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the
evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d
Cir. 1993). But in an adequately developed factual record,
substantial evidence may be “something less than the
weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two
inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent
[the ALJ's decision] from being supported by substantial
evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime
Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). “In
determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported
by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record
as a whole.” Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d
623, 627 (M.D.Pa. 2003). The question before this Court,
therefore, is not whether Ms. Michael is disabled, but
whether the Commissioner's finding that she is not
disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached
based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See
Arnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205,
at *1 (M.D.Pa. Mar. 11, 2014)(“[I]t has been held that
an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial
evidence.”)(alterations omitted); Burton v.
Schweiker, 512 F.Supp. 913, 914 (W.D.Pa.
1981)(“The Secretary's determination as to the
status of a claim requires the correct application of the law
to the facts.”); see also Wright v. Sullivan,
900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d Cir. 1990)(noting that the scope of
review on legal matters is plenary); Ficca, 901
F.Supp.2d at 536 (“[T]he court has plenary review of
all legal issues . . . .”).
Initial Burdens of Proof, Persuasion, and Articulation
for the ALJ
receive benefits under the Social Security Act by reason of
disability, a claimant must demonstrate an inability to
“engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason
of any 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 not
less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1)(A); 42
U.S.C. §1382c(a)(3)(A); see also 20 C.F.R.
§§404.1505(a), 416.905(a). To satisfy this
requirement, a claimant must have a severe physical or mental
impairment that makes it impossible to do his or her previous
work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists in
the national economy. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(2)(A); 42 U.S.C.
§1382c(a)(3)(B); 20 C.F.R. §§404.1505(a),
416.905(a). To receive benefits under Title II of the Social