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Weher v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 3, 2018





         Plaintiff filed an application for social security disability and disability insurance benefits. Plaintiff alleged disability due to various mental and physical impairments, some of which were related to injuries sustained as the result of a car accident. Plaintiff's application was denied initially, and following hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The Appeals Council denied her request for review. The parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment are before the Court. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be granted, and Defendant's denied. This matter will be remanded for further proceedings.



         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. §706. When reviewing a decision, the district court's role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ's findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.

         A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196 - 97, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ's evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, No. No. 10-6540, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted). Nonetheless, I am not required to read the ALJ's opinion “in a vacuum.” Knox v. Astrue, No. No. 9-1075, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28978, at *22 (W.D. Pa. May 26, 2010).


         Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's findings that Plaintiff failed to meet various Listings. In particular, she avers that the ALJ erred in failing to find that she met Listings §§ 1.02A, 1.04, 1.07, and 12.06. A Plaintiff's failure to point to evidence of conditions required by the Listings is fatal to such a challenge. See Arrington v. Colvin, 216 F.Supp.3d 217, 235 (D. Mass. 2016) (citing cases).

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assessing Listing § 1.04, which addresses spinal disorders. The Listing “requires the claimant to produce evidence of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis, ” along with other requirements. See, e.g., Harris v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. 11-2961, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140308, at *12 (D.N.J. Sep. 27, 2012) (citing 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 § 1.04). Plaintiff acknowledges that the diagnostic studies of record alone are likely insufficient to meet the Listing, but contends that her complaints of pain were consistent with the studies' findings and diagnoses of spondylosis and lumbar facet syndrome. Crediting her pain complaints and accepting those diagnoses, however, does not constitute the required evidence. Plaintiff points to no evidence that would mandate or support findings that meet the specific requirements of the Listing.

         In addition, Plaintiff argues that the medical records demonstrate that her left femoral mononeuropathy meets Listing § 1.02A, which addresses major dysfunction of a joint. In particular, she complains that the ALJ summarily rejected the reports of Dr. Mathew and Dr. Klein, who evaluated her for long-term disability insurance and the litigation resulting from her accident. Listing 1.02 A requires, inter alia, certain symptoms resulting in “inability to ambulate effectively.” “Inability to ambulate effectively means an extreme limitation of the ability to walk.” Godfrey v. Astrue, No. 10-565, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 51145, at *14 (W.D. Pa. May 12, 2011) (quoting 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, Appendix 1, Listing 1.00B2b). Plaintiff does not explain how the records to which she points, which merely recount Plaintiff's various injuries and diagnoses, and broadly suggest that she remained symptomatic, would support a finding that she meets the specific requirements of Listing § 1.02A; the connection is not apparent.

         Plaintiff also asserts that the ALJ failed in his assessment of Listing 1.07, which addresses fracture of an upper extremity. As Defendant points out, Plaintiff's wrist condition did not result from a fracture, which is a prerequisite for Listing 1.07; indeed, she ascribes her wrist condition to tendonitis. Finally, Plaintiff argues that the combination of her impairments impacts her ability to perform even the most minimal activities of daily living. Plaintiff, however, does not point to a Listing that might apply to a combination of her impairments, or that the ALJ arguably should have evaluated. I reject Plaintiff's arguments.

         Finally, in a different Section of her brief (Section II), Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to evaluate whether she met Listing 12.06, for PTSD. To satisfy Paragraph B of that Listing, a claimant's mental impairment must result in at least two of marked restrictions of activities of daily living, marked difficulties in social functioning, marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace, or repeated episodes of decompensation, of extended duration. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had only mild restrictions or difficulties in daily living and social functioning, and moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace; she did not have qualifying episodes of decompensation. In challenging these findings, Plaintiff refers to her diagnoses of anxiety and severe depression and her subjective complaints, but does not explain exactly how the ALJ's analysis - which was thorough and supported by citations to the medical record - was improper. I reject Plaintiff's contentions.

         A. Residual Functional Capacity ...

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