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Trubnick v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

May 21, 2018

LAURA TRUBNICK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT SYNOPSIS

          Donetta W. Ambrose U.S. Senior District Judge.

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 7, 11]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 8, 12]. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”). On or about January 20, 2014, Plaintiff applied for DIB. [ECF No. 5-7 (Ex. 1D)]. In her application, she alleged that since May 4, 2013, she had been disabled due to bipolar, depression, memory disorder, crohns, hypersomnia, and fatigue. [ECF No. 5-8 (Ex. 1E)]. Her date last insured is December 31, 2018. [ECF No. 5-2 at 24].[2] The state agency denied her claims initially, and she requested an administrative hearing. [ECF No. 5-5 (Exs. 3B, 4B)]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Sarah Ehasz held a hearing on December 3, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [ECF No. 5-3, at 39-89]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on her own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. at 79-88. In a decision dated January 22, 2016, the ALJ found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act between May 4, 2013 and April 19, 2015.[3] [ECF No. 5-2, at 22-34]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on April 6, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. [ECF No. 5-9 (Ex. 11E); ECF No. 5-2, at 1-6]. Having exhausted all of her administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 7 & 11]. The issues are now ripe for my review.

         II. LEGAL ANALYSIS

         A. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The standard of review in social security cases is whether substantial evidence exists in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). Additionally, the Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by substantial evidence, however, the district court must review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706.

         To be eligible for social security benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate that she cannot engage in substantial gainful activity because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(3)(A); Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 583 (3d Cir. 1986).

         The Commissioner has provided the ALJ with a five-step sequential analysis to use when evaluating the disabled status of each claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The ALJ must determine: (1) whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) if not, whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) if the claimant has a severe impairment, whether it meets or equals the criteria listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; (4) if the impairment does not satisfy one of the impairment listings, whether the claimant's impairments prevent her from performing her past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing her past relevant work, whether she can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of her age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that she is unable to return to her previous employment (steps 1-4). Dobrowolsky, 606 F.2d at 406. Once the claimant meets this burden, the burden of proof shifts to the Commissioner to show that the claimant can engage in alternative substantial gainful activity (step 5). Id.

         A district court, after reviewing the entire record may affirm, modify, or reverse the decision with or without remand to the Commissioner for rehearing. Podedworny v. Harris, 745 F.2d 210, 221 (3d Cir. 1984).

         B. WHETHER THE ALJ PROPERLY EVALUATED THE MEDICAL OPINION EVIDENCE AND PROPERLY FORMULATED PLAINTIFF'S RFC

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had severe impairments, including depression, bipolar disorder, and memory loss. [ECF No. 5-2, at 24]. She then found that Plaintiff's impairments or combination of impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id. at 25-26. The ALJ further found that, during the closed period, Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she was not capable of any precision work defined as work requiring obtaining precise tolerances, standards, or limits; she had the ability to take notes or refer to written or diagrammatic instruction; her pace would be self-set, but general production demands would be met; she was not capable of negotiation, mentoring, or instruction as defined by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles; and she was limited to only occasional contact and interaction with coworkers, supervisors, and the public. [ECF No. 5-2, at 27-32]. The ALJ ultimately concluded that considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform and, therefore, that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. Id. at 32-33.

         Here, Plaintiff argues the ALJ's findings are deficient because she did not appropriately evaluate the medical opinions and evidence regarding her mental impairments. Id. at 3-19. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly rejected the opinions of treating neurologist, Eric McDade, D.O., treating psychiatrist, Daniel Shrager, M.D., and counselor, Marcie Barent, LCSW, without citing to contradictory treating source evidence. Id.

         The amount of weight accorded to medical opinions is well-established. Generally, the ALJ will give more weight to the opinion of a source who has examined the claimant than to a non-examining source. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1). In addition, the ALJ generally will give more weight to opinions from a treating physician, “since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.” Id. § 404.1527(c)(2). The opinion of a treating physician need not be viewed uncritically, however. Rather, only when an ALJ finds that “a treating source's opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence [of] record, ” must she give that opinion controlling weight. Id. Unless a treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight, the ALJ must consider all relevant factors that tend to support or contradict any medical opinions of record, including the ...


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