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Richardson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 5, 2018

ROBERT JOHN RICHARDSON, JR. Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

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

         SYNOPSIS

         Pending before the Court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 10 and 12]. Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. [ECF Nos. 11 and 13]. After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 12] and denying Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 10].

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff has brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“Act”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Act. On or about July 29, 2013, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI. [ECF No. 6-10 (Exs. B2D, B3D)]. Plaintiff alleged that he had been disabled since August 1, 2009, due to a hearing disability, back injury, and learning disability. [ECF Nos. 6-6 (Ex. B4A); 6-13 (Ex. B2E)]. On or about November 10, 2015, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to March 24, 2012. [ECF No. 6-10 (Ex. B6D)]. His date last insured was March 31, 2015. [ECF No. 6-2, at 17]. The state agency denied his claims initially, and he requested an administrative hearing. [ECF Nos. 6-6 (Exs. B3A, B5A); 6-8 (Ex. B6B))]. Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Suzanne Krolikowski held a hearing on November 10, 2015, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. [ECF No. 6-3, at 35-110]. Plaintiff appeared at the hearing and testified on his own behalf. Id. A vocational expert also was present at the hearing and testified. Id. at 91-103. In a decision dated May 12, 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. [ECF No. 6-2, at 15-29]. Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's determination by the Appeals Council, and, on May 12, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. [ECF No. 6-2, at 1-3]. Having exhausted all of his administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed this action.

         The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. [ECF Nos. 10 and 12]. 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 he 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, 416.920. 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 him from performing his past relevant work; and (5) if the claimant is incapable of performing his past relevant work, whether he can perform any other work which exists in the national economy, in light of his age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. The claimant carries the initial burden of demonstrating by medical evidence that he is unable to return to his 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 DETERMINED PLAINTIFF'S RFC

         At Step Two of his analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative changes in the cervical spine with cervicalgia and peripheral neuropathy; headaches; vertigo; anemia/low hemoglobin; and hearing loss. [ECF No. 6-2, at 17-20]. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except that Plaintiff was limited to: occasional pushing/pulling functions with the dominant right upper extremity; he retained the ability for occasional postural maneuvers of climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, and stooping, but was precluded from crouching, kneeling, crawling, or climbing ropes, ladders, and scaffolds; he was precluded from overhead reaching with the right upper extremity but was capable of occasional reaching in all other directions with the right upper extremity; he could frequently feel and occasionally finger and handle with the right upper extremity; he was precluded from working in high, exposed places or around moving mechanical parts, operating motor vehicles, or from work involving vibration; he was intolerant of more than moderate intensity noise levels and lighting that is brighter than that typically found in an indoor work environment such as an office or retail store. [ECF No. 6-2, at 21-22]. The ALJ concluded that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including counter clerk and host/greeter. Id. at 27-28. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ mischaracterized the evidence and thereby failed to determine an accurate RFC for him. [ECF No. 11, at 4-6]. In ...


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