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Bosko v. Berryhill

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 the parties' cross motions 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., 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. 10) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No.12) is GRANTED.



[1] Plaintiff argues, in essence, that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by: (1) failing to find that Plaintiff's mental impairments meet the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (the “Listings”) at Step Three of the sequential analysis; and (2) improperly evaluating the evidence of record in making his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment. 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, Plaintiff contends-quite cursorily-that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff's mental impairments do not meet the severity of Listings 12.02, 12.04, 12.06 and 12.09 at Step Three of the sequential analysis. Because the ALJ found that Plaintiff has certain severe impairments, including PTSD, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and opiate dependence, Plaintiff does have a condition or conditions that could potentially qualify as a disorder under one or more of the above-mentioned Listings. (R. 16). The Court notes, however, that the Listings operate as a regulatory device used to streamline the decision-making process by identifying claimants whose impairments are so severe that they may be presumed to be disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). Because the Listings define impairments that would prevent a claimant from performing any gainful activity-not just substantial gainful activity- the medical criteria contained in the Listings are set at a higher level than the statutory standard for disability. See Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). Thus, a claimant has the burden of proving a presumptively disabling impairment by presenting medical evidence that meets all of the criteria of a listed impairment or is equal in severity to all of the criteria for the most similar listed impairment. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526.

In this case, the ALJ explained in his decision that Plaintiff's mental impairments had been evaluated under the 12.00 Listings, including 12.02, 12.04, 12.06 and 12.09. (R. 17). Upon review of the relevant evidence of record, however, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's “mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria” of these Listings. (R. 17). According to the statute in effect at the time, the required level of severity for these Listings is met only “when the requirements in both A and B are satisfied, or when the requirements in C are satisfied.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1, § 12.04 (2016). Plaintiff does not specify here how he supposedly meets the requirements in paragraph B, although he states that the ALJ wrongfully concluded that his restrictions were either mild or moderate in nature. (R. 17-18). As the ALJ explained in his analysis of this issue, in order to satisfy the paragraph B criteria, Plaintiff's impairments have to result in at least two of four of the following limitations: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration. (R. 17). The ALJ further explained that episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration “means three episodes in 1 year, or an average of once every 4 months, each lasting for at least 2 weeks.” (R. 17).

The Court notes that the ALJ thoroughly discussed Plaintiff's symptoms and treatment in his decision, but he ultimately found that the above-stated requirements were simply not met or medically equaled. In fact, he clearly addressed evidence relevant to the above elements but concluded that Plaintiff's limitations included the following: mild limitation in activities of daily living; moderate limitation in social functioning; moderate limitation in the area ofconcentration, persistence, or pace; and no episodes of decompensation. (R. 17-18). The ALJ further found that the evidence failed to establish the presence of the “paragraph C” criteria, although it does not appear that Plaintiff disagrees with this finding. (R. 18). The ALJ then properly continued with the rest of his analysis. Thus, after review of the ALJ's decision, the Court finds no merit in Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ erred in failing to find that his impairments meet the severity of one or more of the Listings.

The Court notes that, to support his contention that the ALJ erred in failing to find that he meets or exceeds the Listings, Plaintiff states that the ALJ failed to give proper consideration to certain medical evidence of record and that he improperly evaluated the credibility of Plaintiff's statements and the testimony of his wife. Because such types of evidence are more thoroughly discussed in the ALJ's RFC assessment, which is the topic of Plaintiff's second argument, the Court will address those specific contentions in that context.

Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in improperly evaluating the evidence of record in formulating Plaintiff's RFC. A claimant's RFC is the most that a claimant can do despite his limitations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The determination of a claimant's RFC is solely within the province of the ALJ. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). In formulating a claimant's RFC, the ALJ must weigh the evidence as a whole, including medical records, medical source opinions, a claimant's subjective complaints, and descriptions of his or her own limitations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529, 404.1545. In this case, after reviewing all the relevant evidence, the ALJ determined that, due to Plaintiff's various impairments, he is capable of only sedentary work with quite a few additional limitations. (R. 19). In reaching his conclusions here regarding Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ reviewed and engaged in extensive discussion of a great deal of evidence, including medical opinions of record, Plaintiff's treatment notes, Plaintiff's testimony and subjective complaints, and the testimony of Plaintiff's wife. (R. 19-23)

In support of his argument that the ALJ did not consider properly all the evidence of record in formulating his RFC, Plaintiff states that the ALJ “did not give proper consideration to the records reflecting several visits” in which he voiced various complaints. (Doc. No. 11, at 10). Plaintiff provides no citations to the record, however, so it is largely unclear to the Court what evidence the Plaintiff is contending the ALJ did not adequately address. (Doc. No. 11, at 11).

To the extent Plaintiff makes sufficient reference to specific evidence that the ALJ allegedly failed to properly address, such claims simply lack merit. For example, Plaintiff points out that state agency consultative examiner Rebecca Billings, Ph.D. found him to have marked limitations in the ability to respond appropriately to usual work situations. (Doc. No. 11, at 7-8). However, the Court notes that the ALJ's decision contained adequate discussion of Dr. Billings' opinion, including her finding of marked limitations in this area. (R. 22). Moreover, the ALJ actually chose to give Dr. Billings' opinion “great weight” in his formulation of Plaintiff's RFC, and he accordingly provided relevant workplace limitations in his RFC. (R. 19, 22). Plaintiff also claims that the ALJ improperly failed to discuss in his decision a VA record noting that he had “moderate to severe cognitive impairments limiting ability to participate” in a weight management program. (Doc. No. 11, at 8). In fact, the record at issue states in full, “Patient would NOT benefit from participation in a MOVE/weight management program because of acute illness or injury, end-stage disease, moderate to severe cognitive impairments limiting ability to participate, or conditions for which weight loss may be contraindicated.” (R. 823). The Court emphasizes that the VA record at issue does not indicate which of the listed reasons applied to Plaintiff, and the ALJ thus had no reason to find this record particularly relevant to his decision and worthy of discussion. Moreover, the Court notes that an ALJ is not required to reference every treatment note or every piece of medical evidence, as long as the Court can discern the basis for the ALJ's decision. See Johnson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 202 (3d Cir. 2008); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 42 (3d Cir. 2001); Knox v. Astrue, 2010 WL 1212561, at *7 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 26, 2010). The Court finds that, in the case at bar, the medical evidence was adequately addressed, and the basis of the ALJ's decision was sufficiently explained.

Next, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ erred in concluding that Plaintiff's noncompliance with the recommended mental health treatment undermined the credibility of his statements and those of his wife. (Doc. No. 11, at 8). In essence, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erroneously noted that Plaintiff's failure to seek mental health treatment undermines the veracity of his allegations, signaling that his condition is not as limiting as alleged. (R. 22). The Court finds, however, that the ALJ did in fact properly consider Plaintiff's subjective complaints along with the other evidence of record, including his failure to comply with ...

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