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Thomas v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

August 15, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.


          Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.


         Plaintiff Michelle Mackey Thomas (“Thomas”) seeks judicial review of the Social Security Administration's denial of her claim for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”).[1] Thomas alleges a disability onset date of April 5, 2015. (R. 15) The ALJ denied her claim following a hearing at which both Thomas and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified.[2] Thomas then appealed. Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. 10 and 13. 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 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 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 Thomas's claim for benefits. More specifically, at step one, the ALJ found that Thomas has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 17) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Thomas suffers from the following severe impairments: status-post brain meningioma and following surgeries. (R. 17-18) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Thomas 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.18) Between steps three and four, the ALJ found that Thomas has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with certain restrictions. (R. 18-20) At step four, the ALJ found that Thomas is unable to perform past relevant work. (R. 20) At the fifth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that, considering Thomas's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (R. 21-22)

         III. Discussion

         Thomas presents several issues on appeal. She challenges the ALJ's formulation of the RFC. She also challenges the ALJ's identification of “severe impairments.” Thomas takes issue with the ALJ's formulation of hypothetical questions and his reliance upon the VE's responses thereto. Finally, she contends that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence of record because the VE failed to identify a sufficiently significant number of available jobs in the regional economy. For the reasons set forth below, I reject each contention.

         1. Severe Impairment

         Thomas's challenge to the ALJ's conclusions at the second step of the analysis lacks merit. Thomas faults the ALJ for failing to recognize dysarthria and aphasia as severe impairments. The ALJ evaluated Thomas's assertions in this respect but rejected them because these impairments had been responsive to treatment, caused no more than minimal vocationally relevant limitations, were not expected to last for more than 12 months, or had not been properly diagnosed by an acceptable medical source. (R. 17) Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision in this regard. In short, the record is bereft of any diagnosis of cognitive difficulties or limitations. (R. 18, 62) Consequently, I find no basis for remand.

         Additionally, even accepting Thomas's position as correct for purposes of argument, such an error would have been harmless because the ALJ found that Thomas did suffer from impairments which qualified as “severe.” As stated above, the ALJ found that Thomas suffered from a severe impairment: status-post brain meningioma and following surgeries. (R. 17) In other words, the ALJ did not end the analysis at the second step. SeeSalles v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 145 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2007) (stating that, “[b]ecause the ALJ found in Salle's favor at Step Two, even if he had erroneously concluded that some of her other impairments were non-severe, any error was harmless.”), citing,Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 553 (3d Cir. 2005). See also, Roberts v. Astrue, Civ. No. 8-625, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91559, at * 5 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2009) (finding that, “[e]ven assuming that the ALJ failed to include all of the Plaintiff's severe impairments at step two, this would be harmless error, as the ALJ did not make his disability determination at this step. Indeed, remand would not affect the outcome of this case and is not warranted.”); and Bliss v. Astrue, Civ. No. 8-980, 2009 WL 413757 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 18, 2009) (stating that, “as long as a claim is not denied at step two, it is not generally necessary for the ALJ ...

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