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Protzman v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 28, 2018

RANDALL ALAN PROTZMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge.

         AND NOW, this 28th 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., 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. Secretary 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. 11) is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) is GRANTED.

---------

Notes:

[1]Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by: (1) failing to find at Step Two of the sequential analysis that Plaintiff did not have the severe impairments of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis in the neck, knees and thumbs, a mental health disorder, and emphysema; (2) failing to give proper weight in his analysis to the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians; (3) failing to include in his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) assessment the limitations from the above-mentioned impairments, which were erroneously considered to be not severe; (4) improperly evaluating Plaintiff's subjective complaints of pain; and (5) improperly disregarding the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”). 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.

With regard to Plaintiff's first argument, the Court notes at the outset that the Step Two determination as to whether a claimant is suffering from a severe impairment is a threshold analysis requiring the showing of only one severe impairment. See Bradley v. Barnhart, 175 Fed.Appx. 87, 90 (7th Cir. 2006). In other words, as long as a claim is not denied at Step Two, it is not generally necessary for the ALJ specifically to have found any additional alleged impairment to be severe. See Salles v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 145 n.2 (3d Cir. 2007); Lee v. Astrue, 2007 WL 1101281, at *3 n.5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 12, 2007); Lyons v. Barnhart, 2006 WL 1073076, at *3 (W.D. Pa. March 27, 2006). Since Plaintiff's claim was not denied at Step Two, it is irrelevant whether the ALJ correctly or incorrectly found any other of Plaintiff's alleged impairments to be non-severe, as long as, as discussed, infra, he properly accounted for all impairments at Steps Four and Five.

Moreover, the Court finds here that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, which do not include bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis in the neck, knees and thumbs, a mental health disorder, and emphysema among Plaintiff's severe impairments. (R. 15). A claimant has the burden of demonstrating, at Step Two of the disability determination process, that he or she has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1512(a), 404.1520(c), 416.912(a), 416.920(c); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987). An impairment is “not severe” if the medical evidence establishes that the condition has no more than a minimal effect on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. See SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, at *3 (1985); Newell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing SSR 85-28). The severity step of the sequential evaluation process thus functions as “a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Newell, 347 F.3d at 546; see also McCrea v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 360 (3d Cir. 2004) (holding that the “burden placed on an applicant at step two is not an exacting one”).

Thus, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff had had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome, and that the treating surgeon reported that Plaintiff was doing very well after the surgeries and that his symptoms had improved and/or resolved. (R. 16). As there was no indication that Plaintiff needed additional treatment for the condition, or that it persisted for a continuous period of twelve months or resulted in more than minimal functional limitations, the ALJ found them to be non-severe per the regulations. (R. 16).

Regarding Plaintiff's allegations of arthritis in his neck, knees and thumbs, the ALJ found that the record lacked recurrent subjective complaints, abnormal physical examinations, or objective diagnoses regarding the cervical spine and knees, and he noted that Plaintiff admitted to not pursuing treatment for neck and knee allegations. (R. 17). The ALJ explained that although an examining physician reported left thumb arthritis at one point, Plaintiff was asymptomatic and reported that he was not interested in any treatment at that time. (R. 17). Moreover, since the record thereafter lacked similar complaints, substantiating radiographic studies, or objective diagnoses in support of an arthritic condition in his hands, the ALJ found that the record did not support a finding that the left thumb resulted in more than minimal functioning limitation or that Plaintiff had any impairment of the cervical spine or knees. (R. 17).

Regarding Plaintiff's claim of a medically determinable mental impairment of adjustment disorder, the ALJ also found that it did not cause more than minimal limitation in Plaintiff's ability to perform basic mental work activities and was thus non-severe. (R. 17). The ALJ included appropriate discussions and found that Plaintiff had only mild limitation in activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence or pace, and no episodes of decompensation. (R. 18). The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff's treatment consisted primarily of prescribed medication through his primary care provider, and that he had had only a single psychiatric examination with no need for follow-up. (R. 17). The ALJ further explained that Plaintiff's exams reported him largely doing well, and his most recent examination reported that Plaintiff denied depression, anxiety, sadness, and suicidal ideation. (R. 17).

Finally, with regard to emphysema, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff's pulmonary function testing found only mild obstruction with normal lung capacity and FVC and FEV1 values. (R. 16). The ALJ explained that Plaintiff also denied symptoms of shortness of breath, physical examinations were unremarkable, and no medical source indicated a diagnosis of emphysema. (R. 16). Thus the ALJ found that the record failed to substantiate the existence of a medically determinable impairment of emphysema. (R. 16).

Upon consideration of the evidence presented in this case, the Court therefore finds that the ALJ's decision, which included ample discussion of the above-referenced conditions but did not include them as severe impairments, is indeed supported by substantial evidence. (R. 15-19).

Second, the Court finds no merit in Plaintiff's contention that the ALJ failed to give proper weight in his RFC analysis to the medical opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians. The Court notes that a claimant's RFC is the most that a claimant can do despite his limitations, and the determination of a claimant's RFC is solely within the province of the ALJ. See 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1527(d)(2), 404.1545(a), 404.1546(c), 416.927(d)(2), 416.945(a), 416.946(c). In formulating a claimant's RFC, the ALJ must weigh the evidence as a whole, including medical records, medical source opinions, a claimant's ...


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