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Campanaro v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 27, 2018



          Alan N. Bloch, United States District Judge

         AND 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)).[1]

         Therefore, 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.



[1] 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 non-disability.

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 therein.

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. 289-333).

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 merit.

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. ...

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