United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge
filed an application for disability insurance pursuant to
Title II of the Social Security Act, alleging disability due
to physical impairments, including osteoarthritis of the
knees, and back and shoulder pain. Her application was denied
initially, and upon hearing by an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”). The Appeals Council denied her request
for review. Before the Court are the parties'
Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. For the following
reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be granted, and
Defendant's denied, and this matter remanded for further
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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).
contends that the ALJ erred in her treatment of the sole
medical opinion of record, that of an examining consultant.
the ALJ must give indication of the evidence he rejects and
explain the reasons for discounting pertinent evidence. Oakes
v. Colvin, No. 15-507, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 117952, at *27
(W.D. Pa. Sep. 1, 2016). Moreover, “rarely can a
decision be made regarding a claimant's residual
functional capacity without an assessment from a physician
regarding the functional abilities of the claimant.”
Hawk v. Colvin, No. 14-00337, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS
32756, at *30 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 13, 2015) (citing cases).
Assefa performed a consultative exam on February 19, 2014. He
concluded that Plaintiff had several limitations. For
example, he opined that Plaintiff could occasionally lift up
to 20 pounds and carry up to 10; sit for two hours at a time
and for three total; stand for 15 minutes at a time and for
one hour total; walk for 15-20 minutes at a time and for one
hour total. It appears that these limitations were based on
Plaintiff's knee pain and stiffness, and the condition of
her shoulders and fingers. She could occasionally reach,
handle, finger, feel, and push/pull. The ALJ found that Dr.
Assefa's opinion was entitled to “some weight,
” and that it was not “fully consistent with
objective medical evidence of record, after this assessment
was made.” The RFC omitted many of the limitations
opined to by Dr. Assafa.
unclear which evidence following Dr. Assefa's assessment
caused the ALJ to discount his opinion. The only evidence
that postdates Dr. Assefa's opinion, and to which the ALJ
refers, are treatment notes from Dr. Bisignani, a treating
source. Those records show that Plaintiff had advanced
arthritis of the knees and received bilateral knee
injections. The ALJ notes that a September, 2015 visit to Dr.
Bisignani showed “no instability to varus or valgus
stress.” The ALJ also refers to “additional
routine visits” to Plaintiff's primary care
physician, Dr. Chalfant, after June, 2014. The ALJ briefly
notes that in his records of those visits, Dr. Chalfant
referred to Plaintiff's weight, diabetes, hypothyroidism,
and foot pain. Again, it is unclear what bearing these
post-2014 records have on the weight to be afforded Dr.
Assefa's opinions. The ALJ is entitled to assign little
weight to Dr. Assefa's opinion, but must explain why she
is doing so. The ALJ's cursory discussion of the weight
afforded Dr. Assefa's functional assessment renders
assessment problematic -- for example, of the decision not to
include any sit/stand/walk or lift/carry limitations in the
RFC, despite findings that her knee and shoulder conditions
were severe impairments. It appears that the ALJ accepted
portions of Dr. Assefa's opinion and rejected others,
without explanation. As a result, the basis for some of the
limitations included in the RFC - such as that Plaintiff must
be afforded the opportunity for brief one or two minute
position changes at intervals not to exceed 30 minutes - is
also unclear. Absent such an explanation, this Court is
unable to properly assess whether the RFC, and the ALJ's
decision, are supported by substantial evidence. Remand is
warranted for further explanation. On remand, the ALJ may
further develop the record, should she deem it necessary.
I remand on other grounds, Plaintiff's remaining
arguments merit mention. Plaintiff contends that the RFC of
Douglas Kleman, a single decision maker (“SDM”),
is entitled to no evidentiary weight. There is
“significant case law” supporting the position
that an SDM's RFC is entitled to no evidentiary weight.
Yorkusv. Astrue, No. 10-2197, 2011 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 154471, at *13 (E.D. Pa. Feb. 28, 2011). Here,
the ALJ assigned “some weight” to the opinion of
the SDM. The ALJ gave “some weight” to
both opinions of record - one of an examining physician and
one of an SDM, and the ALJ's RFC did not adequately
explain the weight afforded. On remand, the ALJ should
reassess her reliance on the SDM's opinion. Lastly,
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's credibility
determination did not take into account her stellar work
record. “It is well-established that the testimony of a
claimant with a long, productive work history will be given
‘substantial credibility' concerning his work
limitations, assuming those limitations are also supported by