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Charlier v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

June 7, 2018



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


         Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff's application involved alleged disability due to physical and mental impairments, including bipolar disorder and hepatitis C. 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. This matter will be remanded for further proceedings.



         Judicial 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.

         A 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).


         A. Treating Psychiatrist

         The contention that requires the most discussion is that the ALJ and Appeals Council improperly disregarded the medical opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Hiller. In particular, Dr. Hiller opined that Plaintiff was markedly impaired in her ability to interact appropriately with supervisors, and with co-workers. The ALJ observed that Dr. Hiller's assessment relied heavily on Plaintiff's subjective reports, and overestimated her functional restrictions “given the minimally documented treatment findings and the noted inconsistencies with the record as a whole.” Elsewhere, the ALJ noted that the records reflected that Plaintiff's psychiatric disorders were managed by conservative medications with minimal adjustments. She concluded, therefore, that Dr. Hiller's “assessments of marked limitations are not substantiated by the treatment records or consistent with the record as a whole and given little weight.”

         In addition to giving Dr. Hiller's opinion limited weight, I note that the ALJ afforded limited weight to the 2013 opinion of nonexamining initial level source Valorie Rings, Psy D. Dr. Rings concluded that Plaintiff was moderately limited in the ability to accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors. Further, Dr. Rings opined that Plaintiff was moderately limited in “the ability to get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes.” The ALJ afforded this opinion limited weight because Dr. Rings did not observe Plaintiff, or consider additional evidence submitted after her review. The psychiatric portion of the additional evidence to which the ALJ refers, Exhibits 12F-20F, consist of monthly office notes from Allegheny Behavioral Health, and somewhat illegible office notes from Dr. Hiller, encompassing a period from 2014 to 2015. Notably, when asked about an individual with marked impairment in interacting appropriately with supervisors, the vocational expert (“VE”) testified that the individual could not engage in substantial gainful activity.

         After assessing the evidence in this manner, the ALJ arrived at a residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The pertinent portions of the RFC provided for “work where a supervisor directs a person's activities…[and] the instructions come directly from a supervisor” and “work in which the instructions are provided in written…format as well as by demonstration such that the job is explained and demonstrated to the person along with materials for future reference.” It further provided, “contact with the public is limited to no contact face-to-face, occasional contact by phone, and no collaborative work.” The RFC contains no limitations regarding contact or interaction with supervisors or co-workers.

         An ALJ is certainly entitled to reject a treating physician's opinion. “While the ALJ is not required to accept all medical opinions in crafting the RFC, he must give some reason for discounting the evidence he rejects.” Mitchell v. Colvin, No. 14-998, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 38530, at *4 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 26, 2015). Rejecting a treating psychiatrist's opinions because they are based on subjective reports leads into awkward territory.

It is axiomatic that a treating psychiatrist must consider a patient's subjective complaints in order to diagnose a mental disorder. In fact, whether dealing with mental health or not, consideration of a "patient's report of complaints, or history, [a]s an essential diagnostic tool, " is a medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic technique. This is especially true for diagnoses of mental disorders because unlike orthopedists, for example, who can formulate medical opinions based upon objective findings derived from objective clinical ...

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