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Daddario v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

April 24, 2018

JASON R. DADDARIO
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL

          MEMORANDUM

         Administrative Law Judge Anne W. Chain denied Jason R. Daddario's application for Social Security disability insurance benefits.[1] Mr. Daddario appealed. We referred the appeal to Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Rueter for a report and recommendation ("Report"). After considering the briefing, Judge Rueter recommended we deny Mr. Daddario's request for review.[2]

         Mr. Daddario filed three objections to Judge Rueter's Report challenging ALJ Chain for improperly: (1) rejecting treating orthopedic surgeon Steven J. Valentino, D.O.'s opinion; (2) rejecting treating physiatrist John J. Kraus, M.D.'s opinion; and (3) omitting credibly established limitations in her hypothetical to the Vocational Expert.

         We review ALJ Chain's findings of fact under the deferential "substantial evidence" standard.[3] We must affirm her decision "so long as [her] conclusions are supported by substantial evidence."[4] Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."[5] "It is 'more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.'"[6] We review the record as a whole to determine whether substantial evidence supports a factual finding.[7] After our de novo review of the record, the Report, and Mr. Daddario's objections, we find substantial evidence to support ALJ Chain's findings and adopt Judge Rueter's Report entering judgment for the Commissioner.

         A. ALJ Chain properly afforded limited weight to Dr. Valentino's July 12, 2012 opinion.

         Mr. Daddario objects to the weight given by ALJ Chain to the July 18, 2012 opinion of treating orthopedic surgeon Dr. Valentino. ALJ Chain assigned "little weight" to Dr. Valentino's opinion explaining it (1) pre-dated the amended onset date of September 1, 2012; (2) did not provide function by function limitations; (3) is based on subjective complaints; and (4) is inconsistent with findings of normal gait and full strength.[8]

         Mr. Daddario objects to Judge Rueter's Report as failing to address his argument ALJ Chain erred when she rejected Dr. Valentino's July 18, 2012 opinion as pre-dating the September 1, 2012 onset date while at the same time relying on reports from other physicians also predating the onset date. Judge Rueter acknowledged this argument. After reviewing all of Mr. Daddario's arguments and the applicable law, he concluded ALJ Chain provided adequate justification for assigning limited weight to Dr. Valentino's opinion for the other three reasons.[9]Judge Rueter analyzed Dr. Valentino's opinion notwithstanding its date. Even if we disregard ALJ Chain's dismissal of Dr. Valentino's July 12, 2012 opinion based on timing, ALJ Chain found three other substantial grounds to afford less weight to Dr. Valentino's July 18, 2012 opinion.

         1. Dr. Valentino failed to provide function by function limitations.

         Mr. Daddario objects to Judge Rueter's finding ALJ Chain did not err when she found Dr. Valentino failed to provide function by function limitations. Dr. Valentino opined Mr. Daddario's "[s]ymptoms are worse with activity and prolonged posture and decreased with rest and recumbency."[10] Judge Rueter disagreed, finding while Mr. Daddario offered his own explanation for Dr. Valentino's opinion, Dr. Valentino's statement did not provide function by function limitations. Mr. Daddario contends the "plain meaning" of Dr. Valentino's words shows function by function limitations and "yields a conclusion" he is precluded from prolonged sitting, standing, and walking, and requires rest in a recumbent position.

         We agree with Judge Rueter's conclusion Dr. Valentino's opinion does not support Mr. Daddario's interpretation.

         2. Disability determinations are reserved to the Commissioner.

         Mr. Daddario objects to Judge Rueter's finding Dr. Valentino's July 2012 conclusion Mr. Daddario "is disabled from gainful employment" is not binding on ALJ Chain. Judge Rueter correctly applied the relevant regulations and case law providing medical opinions as to a claimant's disability are not binding on the ALJ and disability determinations are reserved for the Commissioner.[11] Mr. Daddario objects, arguing Dr. Valentino's opinion of worsening pain with activity and prolonged posture which is decreased by rest and recumbency is not an opinion on an issue reserved to the Commissioner, but an opinion regarding the "nature and severity" of his impairments entitled to special significance under the regulations.

         We disagree. Medical opinions, as defined by regulation, are "statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do despite impairment(s), and your physical or mental restrictions."[12] Opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner will not be given any special significance, including opinions on the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments.[13]

         3. Dr. Valentino's opinion is based on subjective complaints of pain.

         Mr. Daddario objects to Judge Rueter's finding the ALJ did not err when she found Dr. Valentino's opinion is based on subjective complaints of pain. Dr. Valentino's July 2012 treatment notes state Mr. Daddario "unfortunately continues to be in severe pain. He is disabled from gainful employment from chronic pain; every second of his life as he indicates."[14]Correctly applying the relevant law, Judge Rueter found a medical report's memorialization of a claimant's subjective statements does not elevate the statements to a medical opinion. Judge Rueter found ALJ Chain properly discounted Dr. Valentino's opinion on this basis.[15]

         Mr. Daddario argues ALJ Chain's interpretation of Dr. Valentino's opinion ignores the objective evidence in the record of an earlier, failed lumbar surgery, contending Dr. Valentino, as a specialist, "understood" Mr. Daddario's pain to be continuing and his opinion should be given more weight under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(5). Subsection 404.1527(c)(5) provides opinions of specialists are "generally give[n] more weight. . . about medical issues related to his or her area of specialty than to the medical opinion of a source who is not a specialist." But this recognition does not vitiate the law of this Circuit regarding a claimant's subjective statements in a medical report. Judge Rueter additionally noted ALJ Chain properly discounted Dr. Valentino's July 2012 opinion in part because the opinion is inconsistent with a finding - in the same treatment notes - of normal gait and full strength.[16]

         4. Judge Rueter properly evaluated Dr. Kuznits's reports.

         Mr. Daddario further objects to Judge Rueter's rejection of his argument Dr. Valentino's opinion is supported by reports of another treating physician, Sagi M. Kuznits, M.D. Dr. Kuznits, a neurosurgeon, performed Dr. Daddario's laminectomy in 2010 and examined him again in August 2012 and March 2013.[17] Dr. Kuznits's March 22, 2013 examination concluded "[g]iven the degree of disability we'll ...


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