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Mundell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

June 27, 2019

STEVEN MUNDELL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          ORDER

          EDWARD G. SMITH, J.

         AND NOW, this 27th day of June, 2019, after considering: (1) the complaint (Doc. No. 4), (2) the answer (Doc. No. 12), (3) the administrative record (Doc. No. 11), (4) the plaintiff's brief and statement of issues in support of the request for review (Doc. No. 13), (5) the defendant's response to the request for review (Doc. No. 16), (6) the plaintiff's reply's brief (Doc. No. 18), (7) the report and recommendation filed by United States Magistrate Judge Linda K. Caracappa (Doc. No. 21), (8) the plaintiff's objections to the report and recommendation (Doc. No. 22), and (9) the defendant's response to the plaintiff's objections (Doc. No. 24); accordingly, it is hereby ORDERED as follows:

         1. The clerk of court is DIRECTED to remove this matter from civil suspense and return it to the court's active docket; 2. The plaintiff's objections to the report and recommendation (Doc. No. 22) are SUSTAINED IN PART and OVERRULED IN PART;[1]

         3. The report and recommendation (Doc. No. 21) is APPROVED AND ADOPTED IN PART and REJECTED IN PART to the extent consistent with this order;

         4. The plaintiff's request for review is GRANTED;

         5. The final decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED to the extent the matter is REMANDED to the Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this order; and 6. The clerk of court is DIRECTED to mark this matter as CLOSED.

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Notes:

[1] This court's review of the contested portion of the report and recommendation (“R&R”) is plenary and, the court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) (emphasis added). If the parties do not file any objections to the R&R, then “the court may accept the report and recommendation if the court is satisfied that there is no clear error on the face of the record.” Altomare v. Colvin, Civ. A. No. 13-7297, 2015 WL 5139436, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 2015) (footnote omitted) (remanding case back to Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for reason not specified in objection or raised in R&R); see also Safronsky v. Berryhill, Civ. A. No. 16-4002, 2019 WL 119987, at *1 n.1 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 7, 2019) (“For those sections of the report and recommendation to which no objection is made, the court should, as a matter of good practice, ‘satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'” (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b) advisory committee notes)). This court is not bound to accept the R&R in toto and, instead, “may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). However, the court's “[r]eview of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security . . . is limited to determining whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Abney v. Colvin, Civ. A. No. 13-6818, 2015 WL 5113315, at *3 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 31, 2015) (citations omitted). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Zirnsak v. Colvin, 777 F.3d 607, 610 (3d Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Here, the plaintiff raises two objections to the R&R, namely that Judge Caracappa improperly found that substantial evidence supported the ALJ's decision to (1) afford Dr. Hassel's opinion little weight and (2) discredit the plaintiff's subjective complaints. Pl.'s Objs. to the Magistrate Judge's R&R (“Pl.'s Objs.”) at 1, 3, Doc. No. 22. The court will address each objection in turn.

The plaintiff's first objection hinges on whether the ALJ afforded Dr. Hassel's opinion insufficient weight. Pl.'s Objs.at 1-3. The plaintiff essentially argues (1) “Mundell's treatment notes support Dr. Hassel's opinion” and (2) “the Magistrate judge failed to address why the ALJ did not contact Dr. Hassel for a clarification regarding Mundell's functional limitations.” Id. at 2, 3. As to the first component of this objection, the court agrees with Judge Caracappa that the ALJ permissibly afforded Dr. Hassel's opinion less weight with respect to the plaintiff's wrist condition. When an ALJ weighs medical opinion testimony the ALJ must consider the record as a whole. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(b) (“In determining whether you are disabled, we will always consider the medical opinions in your case record together with the rest of the relevant evidence we receive.”). ALJs also weigh several factors to determine the proper weight to afford competing medical opinions, namely: (1) the “examining relationship” between the doctor and claimant; (2) the doctor's “treatment relationship” with the claimant, including the length, frequency, and “nature and extent” of said relationship; (3) “supportability, ” including the “relevant evidence” presented by the medical source in support of his/her opinion; (4) whether the medical opinion is “consistent” with the record; (5) the doctor's specialization; and (6) “other factors” brought to the agency's attention. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6).

As correctly noted by Judge Caracappa, the ALJ properly considered the section 404.1527(c) factors and permissibly afforded the opinion of Dr. Hassel, the plaintiff's “family doctor, ” less weight because: (1) Dr. Hassel did not treat the plaintiff for wrist pain, (2) Dr. Hassel does not specialize in wrist issues or pain management, and (3) Dr. Hassel's treatment notes do not support the new diagnosis of reflex sympathetic dystrophy syndrome (“RSD”) when

he previously diagnosed the plaintiff only with post-traumatic osteoarthritis and merely alluded to RSD as a potential diagnosis once in the treatment history. Tr. of Oral Hr'g at 56, Doc. No. 11-2; R&R at 11, 12-13; cf. Admin. R., Ex. 4F at 284 (stating that on March 12, 2012, plaintiff has “chronic problems of a strange pain like syndrome post surgery in his right wrist remained but he is living with it. I did educate him on my feeling that this is possibly an RSD, he has had multiple consults over the area and no one has given a clear definition of why it hurts, at any rate otherwise he is doing well active and healthy”). The court also notes the ALJ properly afforded Dr. Hassel less weight because the majority of Dr. Hassel's knowledge of the plaintiff's hand condition stemmed from the plaintiff's self-reported descriptions of pain. See, e.g., Admin. R., Ex. 4F at 306 (describing plaintiff's wrist pain under “subjective”), Doc. No. 11-7. In contrast, the plaintiff's own wrist orthopedist, Dr. D'Addesi, (1) specializes in orthopedics; (2) examined the plaintiff for his wrist pain; (3) performed wrist surgery on the plaintiff; and (4) reviewed and monitored the plaintiff's wrist condition post-surgery for purposes of determining the plaintiff's progress. See generally, Admin. R., Ex. 7F at 337-39, 340 (describing Dr. D'Addesi as plaintiff's wrist surgeon).

As to the ALJ's analysis of Dr. Hassel's back opinion, the plaintiff's objections concern only whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision; however, the court finds the ALJ committed clear error by discrediting Dr. Hassel's opinion in a conclusory fashion and without analyzing conflicting record evidence. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 44 n.7 (3d Cir. 2001) (“The District Court, apparently recognizing the ALJ's failure to consider all of the relevant and probative evidence, attempted to rectify this error by relying on medical records found in its own independent analysis, and which were not mentioned by the ALJ. This runs counter to the teaching of SEC v. Chenery Corporation, 318 U.S. 80, 63 S.Ct. 454, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943), that ‘[t]he grounds upon which an administrative order must be judged are those upon which the record discloses that its action was based.' Id. at 87.” (citation ...


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