United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge.
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”). 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. 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.
Standard of Review
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
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).
The ALJ's Decision
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)
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.
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
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 ...