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Corbett v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 10, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for a report and recommendation. Amanda Caroline Corbett (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration's decision finding of not disabled. As set forth below, the undersigned recommends to DENY Plaintiff's appeal and AFFIRM the Commissioner's decision in this case.


         To receive disability or supplemental security benefits under the Act, a claimant bears the burden to demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). Plaintiff must demonstrate the physical or mental impairment “by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         Social Security regulations implement a five-step sequential process to evaluate a disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 2005). The process requires an ALJ to decide whether an applicant (1) is engaged in “substantial gainful activity;” (2) suffers from a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment;” (3) suffers from “an impairment(s) that meets or equals one” listed in the regulation's appendix; (4) has a residual functional capacity (“RFC”) allowing for performance of “past relevant work;” and (5) can “make an adjustment to other work.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v), 416.920(a)(4)(i)-(v).

         If at any of the steps a determination exists that a plaintiff is or is not disabled, evaluation under a subsequent step is not necessary. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four. See Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 551 (3d Cir. 2005). If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must show at step five that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Id.

         In reviewing a decision of the Commissioner, the Court is limited to determining whether the Commissioner has applied the correct legal standards and whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. See e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (“court shall review only the question of conformity with such regulations and the validity of such regulations”); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008); Sanfilippo v. Barnhart, 325 F.3d 391, 393 (3d Cir. 2003) (plenary review of legal questions in social security cases). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); accord Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154, 203 L.Ed.2d 504 (2019). The Court's review is based on the record, and the Court will “meticulously examine the record as a whole, including anything that may undercut or detract from the [Administrative Law Judge's] findings in order to determine if the substantiality test has been met.” Id. Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).

         The Court may neither re-weigh the evidence nor substitute its judgment for that of the fact-finder. Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005). The Court will not set the Commissioner's decision aside if it is supported by substantial evidence, even if the Court would have decided the factual inquiry differently. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)).


         On June 10, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act (Act) (42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383(f)) with an alleged disability onset date of November 12, 2013. (Tr. 14, 83). Plaintiff alleged disability due to the following impairments: HIV, major depression, mood disorder, uncontrollable impulse, post-traumatic disorder, and anxiety. (Tr. 83). On July 12, 2017, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 11-27). Plaintiff sought review of the decision, which the Appeals Council denied on July 13, 2018, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the “final decision” of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration. (Tr. 1-8).

         On September 10, 2018, Plaintiff filed the above-captioned action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to appeal a decision of Defendant denying social security benefits. (Doc. 1). On November 19, 2018, Defendant filed an answer and an administrative transcript of proceedings. (Doc. 4, 5). On April 30, 2019, Plaintiff filed a brief in support of the appeal. (Doc. 8 (“Pl. Br.”)). May 30, 2019, Defendant filed a brief in response. (Doc. 9 (“Def. Br.”)).

         III. ISSUES

         On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the following errors: (1) the ALJ erred by “failing to properly consider the limitations from Plaintiff's post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and mood disorder”; (2) the ALJ erred in determining the RFC by not adopting the treating source opinion of Dr. Anne V. Dall; (3) the ALJ erred “in considering Plaintiff's mental-health related disorders under the Listings Under 12.00, ” and; (4) the ALJ erred “by failing to properly consider the GAF scores assigned to Plaintiff.” Pl. Br. at 1-2.


         Plaintiff was born in September 1993, and thus is classified by the regulations as a younger individual through the date of the July 2017 ALJ decision. (Tr. 83); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563(c), 416.963(c). Plaintiff has never engaged in “substantial gainful activity;”[1] (Tr. 21) however, during the alleged period of disability, she worked seasonally at Hershey Park, volunteered at an animal shelter and at church, and taught English as a second language to adults. (Tr. 34, 48, 501, 566, 614, 724, 771, 779, 820, 830). Plaintiff completed the twelfth grade. (Tr. 76).

         V. ANALYSIS

         A. Treating Physician Opinion

         Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in determining the RFC by not adopting the treating source opinion of Dr. Anne V. Dall. Pl. Br. at 1-2. The ALJ detailed the limitations opined by Dr. Dall:

[T]he opinion of Anne Dall, M.D., in July 2016, suggest[ed] that [Plaintiff] has marked limitation in the ability to carry out detailed instructions, maintain attention and concentration for extended periods, perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, be punctual within customary tolerances, complete a normal workday and work week without interruptions from psychologically-based symptoms, performing a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods, respond appropriately to changes in the work setting, and tolerate normal levels of stress [Tr. 693-696]. Dr. Dall further suggested that [Plaintiff] would have moderate limitations in the ability to set realistic goals or make plans independently of others, get along with coworkers or peers without distracting them are exhibiting behavioral extremes, accept instructions and respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors, and work in coordination with or proximity to others without being distracted by them, sustain ordinary routine without special supervision.

(Tr. 20). A treating physician's opinion does not warrant controlling weight under the regulations unless it is well supported by clinical and laboratory diagnostic findings and consistent with other substantial evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). If a treating source's opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, the factors outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2) are used to determine the weight to give the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). The ALJ, not the treating or examining physician, must make the disability and residual functional capacity determination. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1)-(2); Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 6 ...

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