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May v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 22, 2018

CHRISTOPHER MATTHEW MAY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DONETTA W. AMBROSE UNITED STATES SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Background

         Plaintiff Christopher Matthew May (“May”) brings this action pursuant to 42 U.SC. § 405(g) for review of the ALJ's decision denying his claim for a period of disability[2] and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). He alleges a disability beginning on August 5, 2015. (R. 20) Following a hearing before an ALJ, during which time both May and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified, the ALJ denied his claim. May appealed. Pending are Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF docket nos. [12] and [16].

         Legal Analysis

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

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the claimant must demonstrate that he 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. § 423(d)(1)(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(a). 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, appx. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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).

         2. The ALJ's Analysis

         At step one, the ALJ found that May had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since August 5, 2015, the onset date. (R. 22)[3] At step two, the ALJ concluded that May has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and a small lumbar disc herniation, history of right knee surgery, obesity, affective disorder, anxiety, personality disorder, and a history of substance abuse. (R. 22-23)[4]

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that May does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpt. P, Appendix 1. The ALJ considered Listing 1.02 (knee), 1.04 (spine), 12.04, 12.06, 12.08, and 12.09 (mental impairments) as well SSR 02-1p (obesity). (R. 23-25)

         Prior to engaging in step four, the ALJ assessed May's residual functional capacity (“RFC”).[5] He found May able to perform sedentary work with certain restrictions. (R. 25-32) At step four, the ALJ determined that May was unable to perform past relevant work as a forklift operator, industrial truck operator, laminator, and / or carnival worker / construction worker II because these positions were not consistent with his RFC. (R. 32)

         Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that, considering May's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are significant numbers of jobs in the national economy that May can perform. (R. 33) For instance, the ALJ explained that May would be able to perform the requirements of representative occupations such as table worker, document specialist, and surveillance system monitor. (R. 33)

         3. Medical Opinions

         May urges that the ALJ did not comply with the “Treating Physician Rule.” The amount of weight accorded to medical opinions is well-established. Generally, the ALJ will give more weight to the opinion of a source who has examined the claimant than to a non-examining source. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(1). In addition, the ALJ generally will give more weight to opinions from a treating physician, “since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.” Id, § 416.927(c)(2). If the ALJ finds that “a treating source's opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence [of] record, ” he must give that opinion controlling weight. Id. Also, “the more consistent an opinion is with the record as a whole, the more weight [the ALJ generally] will give to that opinion.” Id, § 416.927(c)(4).

         In the event of conflicting medical evidence, the Court of Appeals for ...


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