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Werner v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 19, 2018

ABIGAIL L. WERNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          OPINION

          AMBROSE, SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pending before the court are Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 6 and 10). Both parties have filed Briefs in Support of their Motions. (ECF Nos. 7 and 11). After careful consideration of the submissions of the parties, and based on my Opinion set forth below, I am granting Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 6) and denying Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 10).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff brought this action for review of the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her application for supplemental security income pursuant to the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed her application alleging she had been disabled since January 1, 1997. (ECF No. 4-6, p. 2). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), Leslie Perry-Dowdell, held a hearing on February18, 2016. (ECF No. 4-3). On May 5, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (ECF No. 4-2, pp. 12-22).

         After exhausting all administrative remedies, Plaintiff filed the instant action with this court. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 6 and 10). The issues are now ripe for 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. §423(d)(1)(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(a). 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., appx. 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. 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. Weighing Opinion Evidence as it relates to the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”)[2]

         I begin with Plaintiff's last argument first, as I believe it is a threshold argument. (ECF No. 7, pp. 16-18). To that end, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ gave significant weight to the opinion of Dr. Martin, but did not include all of the limitations set forth by Dr. Martin in the RFC. Id. Dr. Martin evaluated Plaintiff on November 22, 2013. (ECF No. 4-14, pp. 18-25). The ALJ summarized Dr. Martin's opinion as follows:

Dr. Nickolas Martin found that the intellectual testing revealed that the claimant is “most appropriate for vocational training/employment related experiences of an elementary level of difficulty” (Exhibit 7F/8). This opinion supports the finding that the claimant is capable of performing some unskilled work. It is supported by the testing and by the claimant's ...

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