United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
BRAD A. CAMPANARO, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
N. Bloch, United States District Judge
NOW, this 27th day of March, 2018, upon
consideration of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment,
the Court, upon review of the Acting Commissioner of Social
Security's final decision, denying Plaintiff's claim
for disability insurance benefits under Subchapter II of the
Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq.,
and denying Plaintiff's claim for supplemental security
income benefits under Subchapter XVI of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., finds that the
Acting Commissioner's findings are supported by
substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See
42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jesurum v. Sec'y of U.S.
Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 48 F.3d 114, 117
(3d Cir. 1995); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178,
1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied sub nom., 507 U.S.
924 (1993); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d
Cir. 1988); see also Berry v. Sullivan, 738 F.Supp.
942, 944 (W.D. Pa. 1990) (if supported by substantial
evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed,
as a federal court may neither reweigh the evidence, nor
reverse, merely because it would have decided the claim
differently) (citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700,
705 (3d Cir. 1981)).
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment (Doc. No. 12) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 14) is GRANTED.
 Plaintiff argues, in essence, that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by: (1)
failing to give adequate weight to the medical opinion
evidence provided by Plaintiff's treating physician in
formulating Plaintiff's residual functional capacity
(“RFC”); (2) failing to base Plaintiff's RFC
on substantial evidence because he did not rely on specific
medical opinion evidence of record; and (3) failing to
evaluate properly Plaintiff's subjective complaints. The
Court disagrees and finds that substantial evidence supports
the ALJ's findings as well as his ultimate determination,
based on all the evidence presented, of Plaintiff's
First, the Court finds no merit in Plaintiff's
contention regarding the ALJ's decision not to give
controlling weight to the opinion evidence provided by
treating physician Scott D. Mueller, M.D. It is
well-established that “[t]he ALJ-not treating or
examining physicians or State agency consultants-must make
the ultimate disability and RFC determinations.”
Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356,
361 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(e)(1), 404.1546(c)). “The law is clear . . .
that the opinion of a treating physician does not bind the
ALJ on the issue of functional capacity.” Brown v.
Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 197 n.2 (3d Cir. 2011). A treating
physician's opinion is only entitled to controlling
weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the
claimant's] case record.” Fargnoli v.
Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). “If, however, the
treating physician's opinion conflicts with other medical
evidence, then the ALJ is free to give that opinion less than
controlling weight or even reject it, so long as the ALJ
clearly explains [his or] her reasons and makes a clear
record.” Salles v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.,
229 Fed.Appx. 140, 148 (3d Cir. 2007). A treating
physician's opinion on the ultimate issue of disability
is not entitled to any “special significance, ”
and an ALJ is not required to accept it since the
determination of whether an individual is disabled “is
an ultimate issue reserved to the Commissioner.”
Smith v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 178 Fed.Appx.
106, 112 (3d Cir. 2006).
At the outset, the Court emphasizes that both opinions
of Dr. Mueller at issue here consist merely of simple two- or
three-page check-box evaluations that were filled out by the
doctor. (R. 514-16, 1038-39). The forms largely contain
options to circle or check and a few blanks to be filled in
by hand. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has
stated that “[f]orm reports in which a physician's
obligation is only to check a box or fill in a blank are weak
evidence at best.” Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d
1058, 1065 (3d Cir. 1993). Thus, the Court notes that Dr.
Mueller's opinions lack significant discussion,
explanation, or details to justify his statements contained
Moreover, the Court finds that the ALJ sufficiently
explained his reasons for giving Dr. Mueller's opinions
less than controlling weight in his analysis. The ALJ did not
fail to provide sufficient reasons for discounting Dr.
Mueller's opinions, nor did he simply substitute his own
lay analysis for the judgment of Dr. Mueller in formulating
Plaintiff's RFC. Rather, the ALJ fulfilled his duty as
fact-finder to evaluate Dr. Mueller's opinions,
considering a number of factors, and in light of all the
evidence presented in the record. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527, 416.927.
In fact, the ALJ specified that he was giving
different portions of Dr. Mueller's opinions either
“little weight, ” “more weight, ” or
“great weight” only after engaging in an
extensive discussion of evidence including Plaintiff's
treatment records and other objective medical evidence,
opinion evidence, Plaintiff's reported symptoms and
discussion of his activities of daily living. (R. 533-34).
Then, after summarizing the findings from Dr. Mueller's
two opinion forms, the ALJ explained that he was giving
“little weight” to the limitations on sitting,
standing, and walking, and the need for changing positions
within the time and activity noted, because those limitations
were not supported by the overall objective findings of
record, treatment history, reports of symptoms, and
activities of daily living. (R. 533). The ALJ also explained
that, for the same reasons, he was giving “little
weight” to the opinion as it concerned taking
additional breaks and missing days per month, noting that
Plaintiff had not reported any problem having entire days
where he could not perform even simple tasks and that Dr.
Mueller had offered no explanation for such limitations. (R.
533). The ALJ also gave “little weight” to the
opinion with regard to Plaintiff needing to elevate his legs
because no doctor had advised him to do so, Plaintiff had not
reported a need to do so, and no rationale was provided for
this limitation. (R. 533). On the other hand, the ALJ said he
was giving “more weight” to Dr. Mueller's
lifting and carrying limitation of 20 pounds than to his
limitation of less than 5 pounds, because the higher limit
was more consistent with Plaintiff's reports to Dr.
Mueller and his testimony before the court, as well as the
other objective medical findings. (R. 533-34). The ALJ also
explained that he was giving “great weight” to
Dr. Mueller's limitations on twisting, bending, stooping,
squatting and climbing, noting that they are supported by the
objective findings of record. (R. 534). The ALJ explained
that he was giving “little weight” to the
opinion's limits regarding time off-task, since Plaintiff
had never reported problems with concentration or attention
to Dr. Mueller or to any other treating or examining source,
nor was there any evidence to support such a restriction in
the record. (R. 534). Finally, the ALJ stated that he gave
“little weight” to the opinion that Plaintiff was
limited to working “zero” hours per day and being
completely disabled, as such limitations were not supported
by Plaintiff's current work activity of working at least
two hours some days and much more than that some weeks, nor
were such limitations supported by the other objective
findings in the record. (R. 534).
Plaintiff's various side arguments concerning this
issue also have no merit. For example, Plaintiff claims that
Dr. Mueller's opinions are not inconsistent with the
diagnostic studies, treatment notes and activities of daily
living noted in the record. The diagnostic studies in the
record, however are from prior to the relevant period, the
treatment notes, which were discussed thoroughly, do not
support the extreme limitations Dr. Mueller alleges, and the
activities of daily living, likewise, are quite extensive and
not supportive of the extreme limitations Dr. Mueller
proposes. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3),
416.929(c)(3) (requiring ALJs to consider activities of daily
living in formulating a Plaintiff's RFC). Plaintiff also
complains that the ALJ failed to consider the treatment
records of Steven B. Wolf, M.D., who performed surgery on
Plaintiff prior to his alleged onset date. Although an ALJ is
not required to cite to every record in his decision, see
Hur v. Barnhart, 94 Fed.Appx. 130, 133 (3d Cir. 2004),
the Court notes that the ALJ did discuss and/or refer to Dr.
Wolf's treatment records several times in his decision
(R. 524, 527-28, 534). Moreover, Dr. Wolf's records do
not provide support for Plaintiff's claim in any event,
as they are from a period prior to the alleged onset date and
showed that his surgery had improved his condition. (R.
Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ improperly
referenced his not being referred for additional steroidal
injections, a TENS unit, or physical therapy, when in
actuality they had been attempted without lasting success.
The record, however, simply does not support this claim.
Additionally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly cast
doubt on Dr. Mueller's finding of a positive straight leg
raise on examination because it did not include details on
how such test was administered. While the ALJ was dubious
about the result reported since the record contained no
explanation of how it was conducted (seated or supine, the
degree of the positive finding, the type of pain elicited, or
which leg was positive), the questionable reliability of this
test was only one of many concerns that the ALJ had with Dr.
Mueller's findings and the ALJ also noted that he had the
same concern about the same test (which produced an opposite,
negative, result) when carried out by the consultative
examiner. To the extent that Plaintiff raises other related
objections to the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Mueller's
opinion, the Court also finds them to be without
The ALJ then concluded, and the Court agrees, that the
RFC is supported by the overall objective findings of record,
normal findings by the consultative examiner (discussed
infra), Plaintiff's treatment history (including
surgeries prior to the onset date but only maintenance pain
medication since the alleged onset date), Plaintiff's
reports of symptoms showing aggravation which is accounted
for by limitations in the RFC, and Plaintiff's activities
of daily living. The Court thus finds that the ALJ thoroughly
and carefully addressed all relevant issues in formulating
Plaintiff's RFC and, specifically, that the ALJ did not
err in weighing the opinion evidence of Dr. Mueller. The
Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
evaluation of Dr. Mueller's opinion evidence and his
decisions as to the weight he gave to those opinions in
making his ultimate determination.
Second, Plaintiff argues that his RFC is not based on
substantial evidence because the ALJ did not rely on specific
medical opinion evidence in making his assessment. The Court
notes, initially, that Plaintiff's argument is
essentially based on a mistaken understanding of the decision
issued by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in
Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26 (3d Cir. 1986). As this
Court previously explained in Doty v. Colvin, 2014
WL 29036 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 2, 2014), and in Callahan v.
Colvin, 2014 WL 7408700 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 30, 2014), the
Doak decision does not hold that an ALJ's RFC
findings must be based on a specific medical opinion. Rather,
the Court of Appeals in Doak held simply that
nothing in that particular record supported the finding by
the ALJ that the plaintiff could perform light work. ...