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Smith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 20, 2019

RICHARD SCOTT SMITH
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

          OPINION

          JACOB P. HART UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Richard Scott Smith brought this action under 42 USC §405(g) to obtain review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security partly denying his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). He has filed a Request for Review to which the Commissioner has responded. As set forth below, I will deny Smith's Request for Review, and grant judgment in favor of the Commissioner. I. Factual and Procedural Background Smith was born on September 1, 1967. Record at 165. He graduated from high school. Record at 207. He worked in the past in landscaping, roofing, and construction. Record at 208. On May 7, 2015, Smith filed an application for DIB. Record at 165. In it, he alleged disability since March 23, 2015, as a result of degenerative disc disease, and depression and anxiety. Record at 206.

         Smith's application for benefits was denied on September 25, 2015. Record at 130. Smith then requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Record at 135. A hearing was held in this matter on March 5, 2018. Record at 64.

         On April 27, 2018, the ALJ issued a decision which was partly favorable. Record at 8. She found that Smith was disabled as of his fiftieth birthday, September 1, 2017. Record at 13. Although Smith appealed, seeking a fully favorable decision, the Appeals Council denied his request for review on July 10, 2018, permitting the ALJ's decision to stand as the final decision of the Commissioner. Record at 1. Smith then filed this action. II. Legal Standards The role of this court on judicial review is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389 (1971); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 285 (3d Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is relevant evidence viewed objectively as adequate to support a decision. Richardson v. Perales, supra, at 401; Kangas v. Bowen, 823 F.2d 775 (3d Cir. 1987); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403 (3d Cir. 1979). Moreover, apart from the substantial evidence inquiry, a reviewing court must also ensure that the ALJ applied the proper legal standards. Coria v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 245 (3d Cir. 1984).

         To prove disability, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some “medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any ‘substantial gainful activity' for a statutory twelve-month period.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1). As explained in the following agency regulation, each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a five-step process:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. (ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in §404.1590, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. (iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. (iv). At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. (v). At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 CFR §404.1520 (references to other regulations omitted).

         III. The ALJ's Decision and Smith's Request for Review

         In her decision, the ALJ determined that Smith suffered from the severe impairment of degenerative disc disease. Record at 15. She found his mental health impairments - including depression, anxiety, and drug and alcohol addiction - not to be severe. Record at 16. She further found that neither the degenerative disc disease, nor any combination of impairments, met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Record at 17.

         The ALJ determined that Smith retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to engage in the full range of sedentary work, with a sit/stand option, and which permitted the use of a cane on uneven terrain. Record at 17. Relying upon the testimony of a vocational expert who appeared at the hearing, the ALJ found that, until he turned fifty, Smith could perform the requirements of such jobs as lapel pin assembler, lens inserter, and pharmaceutical egg processor. Record at 24. Therefore, she found that he was not disabled at that time. Id. However, the ALJ went on to find that once Smith turned 50, he entered a different age category, and was entitled to a disability finding under Medical-Vocational Rule 201.14. Id. She therefore awarded benefits as of September 1, 2017. Id.

         In his Request for Review, Smith argues that the ALJ misinterpreted or selectively discounted evidence that he was disabled. He also argues that she improperly failed to give great weight to the opinions of his treating orthopedist and physical therapist, William Murphy, DO. Finally, he argues that the ALJ misconstrued the evidence regarding his ability to participate in the activities of daily living.

         IV. Discussion

         A. The Medical Evidence

         In his first argument, Smith sets forth numerous ways in which - he claims - the ALJ ignored or misinterpreted pertinent evidence. Broadly classified, Smith has raised issues as to how the ALJ handled (1) evidence of MRI testing; (2) Dr. Murphy's medical records; (3) records regarding his epidural injections; (4) emergency room records; (5) records from Premier Orthopedics; and (6) his hearing testimony.

         1. The MRI results

         As to Smith's MRI results, the ALJ wrote:

A[n] MRI of the claimant's lumbar spine was performed in June, 2013. The results revealed disc degeneration with broad disc protrusion, marginal osteophytosis, and facet joint degenerative disease resulting in left greater than right neural foraminal narrowing at ¶ 3-4 and L4-5, as well as disc degeneration with moderate broad-based disc protrusion and marginal osteophytosis eccentric to the right at ¶ 5-S1. The MRI further revealed there was no fracture, no dislocation, a normal vertebral body signal, a normal vertebral body height, a clear conus medullaris, and a normal canal size. In this same month, a[n] MRI of the thoracis spine showed diffuse degenerative thoracic disc disease/kyphosis, a six o'clock annular tear with small focal midline disc herniation at ¶ 7-8, mild disc protrusion at ¶ 5-6 and T6-7, a six o'clock radial annular tear without focal disc herniation at ¶ 8-9 and T11-12, and a small focal eccentric disc herniation to the right at ¶ 9-10, but no disc herniation at ¶ 11-12, T4-T5, T5-T6, or T8-9. Moreover, although a[n] MRI of the lumbar spine in May, 2015, indicated moderate right neural foraminal stenosis at ¶ ...

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