United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge
2012, Plaintiff protectively applied for disability insurance
benefits and supplemental social security income, alleging
mental and physical impairments including chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease, sarcoidosis, and depression. Following
hearing before an administrative law judge
(“ALJ”), Plaintiff obtained a favorable decision,
stating that she had been disabled since July 15, 2011. The
Appeals Council decided to review the ALJ's decision, and
stated that it intended to remand the matter for
reconsideration of the onset date. In March, 2015, the
Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded
the matter. Following remand, the ALJ held a second hearing.
He then issued a partially favorable decision, finding a date
of onset of July 3, 2014. The Appeals Council denied
Plaintiff's request for review. This appeal followed. For
the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be denied,
and Defendant's granted.
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
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
Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's determination of her
disability onset date. Plaintiff contends that the Appeals
Council erred in usurping the ALJ's factfinding role, and
then the ALJ failed to follow the Appeals Council's
remand order. Plaintiff asserts that the onset date was July
15, 2011, when Plaintiff ceased working. In particular,
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have sought a medical
opinion about the onset date.
onset date is the first day an individual is disabled as
defined by the Act, and is significant here in that it
affects the period of time for which Plaintiff can be paid
DIB.” Buckley v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No.
09-4275, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90067, at *30 (D.N.J. Aug. 31,
2010). Primarily, an ALJ's failure to query a medical
advisor about onset date has been called into question when
the alleged onset date is far in the past. For example, in
Walton v. Halter, 243 F.3d 703 (3d Cir. 2001), a
1992 application alleged disability as of 1966; Beasich
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 66 Fed.Appx. 419 (3d Cir.
2003), involved a 1996 application alleging disability as of
1981. Accordingly, our Court of Appeals has approved the
failure to query a physician regarding onset, when the claim
of an earlier onset created a time period of only three
years, and medical evidence supported the Commissioner's
onset date. Kirk v. Commisioner of Soc. Sec., 177
Fed. App'x 205, 208-09 (3d Cir. 2006). Indeed, the
“directive to seek out the services of a medical
advisor is limited to situations where the underlying disease
is progressive and difficult to diagnose, where the alleged
onset date is far in the past, and where medical records are
sparse or conflicting." Bailey v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 354 Fed.Appx. 613, 618 (3d Cir. 2009).
Plaintiff's alleged onset date creates a time period of
only three years; in addition, the ALJ assessed
Plaintiff's medical records beginning in 2012, not long
after her claimed onset date. Further, medical evidence for
the ALJ's determination of onset date supported that
date. The selected onset date of July 3, 2014 corresponds
with the date when testing documented Plaintiff's reduced
breathing capacity, and lack of response to a bronchodilator;
earlier records from 2013 showed good response to a
bronchodilator. The ALJ's decision was supported by
substantial evidence, and the ALJ did not err in assessing
the date of onset.
further argues that the ALJ failed to follow the
“slight abnormality” standard when assessing her
depression as non-severe. In particular, she contends that
the ALJ failed to follow SSR 96-3p, which provides that a
non-severe impairment must be a “slight abnormality (or
a combination of slight abnormalities) that has no more than
a minimal effect on the ability to do basic work
activities.” She contends that the ALJ should have
obtained a consultative exam to assess the impact of her
depression, in combination with her other impairments. An ALJ
has a duty to ensure a fully developed record; a consultative
exam need not be ordered when the record contains sufficient
evidence to make a decision. Ray v. Astrue, 649
F.Supp.2d 391, 409 (E.D. Pa. 2009). The ALJ considered a
record that contained adequate information regarding
Plaintiff's mental health state, including records from
her primary care provider. Based on the evidence of record,
the ALJ's failure to seek additional evidence regarding
depression was not in error; nor do I find any error in the
ALJ's overall approach to Plaintiff's allegations of
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in failing to accept
the onset date offered by Dr. Anderson, a treating source.
Plaintiff points to transcript p. 308 as evidence that Dr.
Anderson treated Plaintiff since 2001; p. 308 does not
suggest that fact. Moreover, Dr. Anderson did not state that
Plaintiff was disabled since 2005; instead, when asked to
identify the earliest that a questionnaire's descriptions
of symptoms and limitations applied, she responded,
“sarcoidosis diagnosed in 2005.” Assuming that it
would be “reasonable to deduce” from Dr.
Anderson's report that Plaintiff was then also disabled
in 2011 is not the applicable standard for either this Court
or the ALJ. “The mere existence of treatment records
tending to support Plaintiff's claim does not undermine
the ALJ's conclusions; the ALJ considered and weighed the
entire record, and this Court is not permitted to reweigh the
evidence.” Ludrosky v. Berryhill, No. 16-1895,
2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17011, at *6 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 2, 2018).
also appears to suggest that the ALJ failed to account for
Dr. Anderson's opinions regarding the effects of fatigue
and depression, the effect of Plaintiff's cough on her
ability to work with the public, and that Plaintiff would not
be able to work with others without disturbing them. Dr.
Anderson, however, did not express opinions as to any such
limitations. The ALJ considered her medical source statement,
and explained why he rejected certain aspects of the
statement and accepted others. His explanation and reasoning
were appropriate. I find no error. Indeed, as support for her
argument, Plaintiff points to her testimony during the
hearing - her audible cough, and her testimony concerning the
cough. Again, the fact that Plaintiff suffers from a
particular medical condition does not alone translate to
evidence of a particular work-related limitation. While an
ALJ bears the burden of crafting an RFC, it is the
claimant's burden to establish that her conditions result
in functional limitations and disability. Davis v.
Astrue, No. 11-17, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2640, at *16
(M.D. Ala. Jan. 9, ...