United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
N. Bloch United States District Judge.
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)).
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.
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.
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.
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.
§§ 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