United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge
filed a protective application for disability insurance
benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.
§§ 401-34. Plaintiff's application involved
alleged disability due physical and mental impairments,
including diabetes, back impairments, fibromyalgia,
depression, and anxiety. 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 denied, and
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.
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).
THE PARTIES' MOTIONS
challenges the ALJ's treatment of the report of Dr.
Gerger, a treating primary care physician.
well-settled that the ultimate disability determination is
reserved for the ALJ. Pettway v. Colvin, No.
14-6334, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 141407, at *32-33 (E.D. Pa.
Apr. 8, 2016). Where a conflict in the evidence exists, an
ALJ "is free to choose the medical opinion of one doctor
over that of another." Diaz v. Commissioner of Soc.
Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 505 (3d Cir. 2009). When such a
conflict exists, “the ALJ may choose whom to credit but
cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong
reason… The ALJ must consider all the evidence and
give some reason for discounting the evidence she
rejects." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429
(3d Cir. 1999) (citation omitted).
Dr. Gerger completed a December 22, 2014 medical source
statement regarding Plaintiff's functional limitations.
The ALJ thoroughly recounted Dr. Gerger's findings, along
with all of the other medical evidence of record. He
concluded that Dr. Gerger's opinions as to lifting and
carrying, and manipulative, postural, and environmental
limtiations, were generally supported by the record as a
whole and the objective medical evidence. He stated,
therefore, that those opinions were “partially
reflected” in the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). The ALJ also found, however, that the
limitation on sitting for only three hours per day was
inconsistent with Plaintiff's work as a taxi driver;
similarly, limitations on standing and walking were not
consistent with the overall evidence and “less
persuasive.” The ALJ also afforded little weight to Dr.
Gerger's subsequent November 10, 2016 Physician's
Report, due to the lack of explanation for additional
exertional restrictions, and inconsistency with
Plaintiff's continued work driving vehicles in 6-7 hour
shifts at least two days per week.
suggests that Dr. Gerger's December, 2014 opinion focused
on her osteoarthritis and bulging discs, and did not account
for later diagnoses, such as those of chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (“COPD”), and neuropathy. The
ALJ, however, noted the parts of the record pertaining to
Plaintiff's neuropathy diagnoses as of 2013, and Dr.
Gerger's suspicion of neuropathy in 2012; the ALJ also
discussed how her neuropathy was addressed at appointments
between 2013 and 2016. Further, it is clear that Dr.
Gerger's December, 2014 opinion was not directed solely
to Plaintiff's osteoarthritis and bulging discs; Dr.
Gerger merely noted those conditions as support for the
lifting/carrying limitations that he identified. In other
words, at the time of his December, 2014 medical source
statement, there is no reason to conclude that Dr. Gerger was
unaware of, or did not intend to account for, Plaintiff's
other conditions. Furthermore, in his October, 2016
Physician's Report, Dr. Gerger identified Plaintiff's
“initial complaints” as including COPD, and the
“initial diagnosis” as neuropathy, with the
“current diagnosis” including both neuropathy and
COPD. In any event, in that October, 2016 report, Dr. Gerger
opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in exposure to
marked changes in temperature and humidity, and to dust,
fumes, and gases. The RFC was consistent with this opinion,
as it limited Plaintiff to “no more than occasional
exposure” to such environmental factors. The ALJ did
not err when he weighed the evidence alongside the entire
record, and offered an adequate explanation for his
with her challenge to the ALJ's treatment of Dr.
Gerger's opinion, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed
to properly consider her subjective pain complaints. In
particular, she argues that the ALJ failed to consider that
her diagnoses, including diabetes and fibromyalgia, support
her subjective complaints. “It is well-settled that a
claimant's allegations alone will not establish that he
is disabled. While the ALJ must seriously consider a
claimant's subjective complaints, it is within the
ALJ's discretion to weigh such complaints against the
evidence and to reject them.” Buskirk v.
Colvin, No. 13-05800, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 20606, at
*22 (S.D. W.Va. Jan. 30, 2014) (citations omitted).
An ALJ may discredit a claimant's complaints of pain
when: (1) there is contrary medical evidence in the record,
and (2) the ALJ explains the basis for rejecting the
complaints. …If medical signs or laboratory findings
show that claimant has a medically determinable impairment
that could produce pain, the ALJ must consider all available
evidence, including claimant's ...