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Butler v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 2, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.


          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge


         Plaintiff Dorian Leroy Butler ("Butler") seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's denial of his claim for supplemental security income ("SSI"). Butler alleges a disability onset date of June 27, 2013. (R. 18). (R. 15) Butler testified by telephone during a hearing in which a vocational expert ("VE") was present but did not testify. (R. 18) Thereafter Butler attended a consultative administrative examination regarding his intellectual functioning. Following the submission of a report regarding the results of the testing, the ALJ tendered a Request for Vocational Interrogatory to a VE. The VE thereafter forwarded responses and the ALJ issued a decision denying Butler's claim. Butler then appealed. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. 12 and 15. For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ's decision is affirmed.


         1. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and I383(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. Bamhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). 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). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is "not merely a quantitative exercise." Gilliland v. Heckler 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). "A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence - particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians)." Id. 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); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420.

         Importantly, 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, 196-7, 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, 2011 WL 2036692, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).

         II. The ALJ's Decision

         As stated above, the ALJ denied Butler's claim for benefits. More specifically, at step one of the five step analysis, the ALJ found that Butler had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. (R. 20) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Butler suffers from the following severe impairments: major depression with psychotic features; mood disorder; bipolar disorder; schizoaffective disorder; borderline intellectual functioning; and obesity. (R. 21) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Butler does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 23-27) Between steps three and four, the ALJ found that Butler has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform work at all exertional levels with certain restrictions. (R. 28-39) At step four, the ALJ found that Butler has no past relevant work. (R. 39-40) At the fifth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that, considering Butler's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. (R. 40-41) As such, the ALJ concluded that Butler was not under a disability during the relevant period of time. (R. 41)

         III. Discussion

         Butler limits his appeal to a single issue - the ALJ's assessment of his intellectual functioning. He contends that the ALJ erred in the evaluation of the consultative examiner's opinion regarding his intellectual functioning and, as a result, the denial of benefits was erroneous. His argument rests, in large part, upon the evaluation of Dr. Pacella's opinion.

         Dr. Pacella, [1] the consultative examiner, diagnosed Butler, in part, with borderline intellectual functioning. (R. 1022) The ALJ gave this diagnosis significant weight but gave Pacella's conclusions regarding functional limitations only partial weight. (R. 38) Specifically, the ALJ accepted Pacella's findings such that Butler satisfied the requirements of Listing 12.05B(1) and (3) and 12.11 A. Nevertheless, the ALJ rejected Pacella's findings to the extent that they supported the conclusion that Butler satisfied the requirements of 12.05B(2) and 12.11B. (R. 24-26)

         Butler points to several of Pacella's findings which he contends support a conclusion that he does, in fact, satisfy these requirements. See ECF Docket No. 13, p. 13. Yet this is the wrong standard. The question before me is not:

whether substantial evidence supports Plaintiff's claims or whether there is evidence that is inconsistent with the ALJ's findings.... Substantial evidence could support both Plaintiff's claims and the ALJ's findings because substantial evidence is less than a preponderance. Jesurum v. Sec'y. of U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Servs.,48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995) (citing, Richardson v. Perales,402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). If substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, it does not ...

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