United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose, U.S. District Court Senior Judge
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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 ...