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Perschka v. Commissioner of Social Security

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 11, 2019



          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 11th day of September, 2019, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court, upon review of the Commissioner of Social Security's final decision that Plaintiff's eligibility for disability insurance benefits under Subchapter II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et seq., ended on September 22, 2014, finds that the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594; Jesurum v. Secretary of U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, 48 F.3d 114, 117 (3d Cir. 1995); Williams v. Sullivan, 970 F.2d 1178, 1182 (3d Cir. 1992), cert. denied sub nom., 507 U.S. 924 (1993); Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir. 1988). See also Berry v. Sullivan, 738 F.Supp. 942, 944 (W.D. Pa. 1990) (if supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's decision must be affirmed, as a federal court may neither reweigh the evidence, nor reverse, merely because it would have decided the claim differently) (citing Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 705 (3d Cir. 1981)).[1]

         Therefore, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 7) is DENIED and that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 10) is GRANTED.



[1] Plaintiff raises three primary arguments in regard to her claim that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in finding that she was no longer disabled under the Social Security Act as of September 22, 2014 because of medical improvements in her impairments. She first asserts that the ALJ failed adequately to identify a decrease in the medical severity of her impairments based on improved symptoms, signs, or laboratory findings. She further argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence in the record in formulating her residual functional capacity (“RFC”). Finally, she alleges that the ALJ did not properly address her mental impairments of anxiety and depression. The Court finds no merit in these various arguments and instead finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff is not disabled.

Plaintiff had previously been found to be disabled due to fibromyalgia and neck disorder with an onset date of January 1, 2006. However, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) is required to review a claimant's continued entitlement to benefits periodically. Among the factors considered by the SSA in determining whether the claimant's disability continues is whether “there has been any medical improvement in [the claimant's] impairment(s) and, if so, whether this medical improvement is related to [the claimant's] ability to work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594(a).

Medical improvement is any decrease in the medical severity of [the claimant's] impairment(s) which was present at the time of the most favorable medical decision that [the claimant was] disabled or continued to be disabled. A determination that there has been a decrease in medical severity must be based on improvement in the symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory findings associated with [the claimant's] impairment(s).

Id. at § 404.1594(b)(1). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to base her finding that there had been sufficient medical improvement in Plaintiff's impairments of fibromyalgia and neck disorder on specific evidence of improvement in her symptoms, signs, and/or laboratory findings. She also argues that the ALJ over-relied on the findings of the consultative examiner in rendering her decision. The Court disagrees.

Contrary to Plaintiff's claims, the ALJ expressly relied on the signs demonstrated by the clinical findings of Hua Yang, M.D., the consultative examiner, from August 27, 2014. (R. 62-65, 366-378). Dr. Yang's findings were based on a physical examination of Plaintiff employing medically acceptable clinical diagnostic techniques and clearly showed less limitation than had been found in 2009. These clinical findings, therefore, were sufficient to establish improvement in the signs associated with Plaintiff's disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1528(b). While Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ over-relied on these findings, the ALJ actually examined the record as a whole, including the opinions of the state reviewing agents, in holding that there was sufficient evidence of medical improvement in Plaintiff's symptoms. (R. 62-65). Indeed, she found the longitudinal treatment records to be supportive of the findings or Dr. Yang, as well as the opinions of the state reviewing agents. (R. 63). The ALJ also, contrary to Plaintiff's position, pointed to evidence that Plaintiff was able to perform her activities of daily living after September 22, 2014. (R. 64, 589). Given the ALJ's thorough consideration and analysis of the record evidence, the Court finds that her determination of medical improvement is supported by substantial evidence.

Plaintiff next argues that, even if there was sufficient medical improvement in her impairments, the ALJ failed to formulate an accurate RFC because she gave too little weight to the opinions of John Kalata, D.O., Plaintiff's treating physician (R. 431, 620-25) and too much to those of the consultative examiner, Dr. Yang (R. 366-378), and state reviewing agents (R. 379-91, 392-98, 399-406, 412-24). Plaintiff is correct, of course, that when assessing a claimant's application for benefits, the opinion of the claimant's treating physician generally is to be afforded significant weight. See Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). In fact, the regulations provide that for claims, such as this one, filed before March 27, 2017, a treating physician's opinion is to be given “controlling weight” so long as the opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2); Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 43; Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429. As a result, the ALJ may reject a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence, and not on the basis of the ALJ's own judgment or speculation, although she may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are provided. See Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429. However, it is also important to remember that:

The ALJ -- not treating or examining physicians or State agency consultants -- must make the ultimate disability and RFC determinations. Although treating and examining physician opinions often deserve more weight than the opinions of doctors who review records, “[t]he law is clear . . . that the opinion of a treating physician does not bind the ALJ on the issue of functional capacity[.]” Brown v. Astrue, 649 F.3d 193, 197 n. 2 (3d Cir.2011). State agent opinions merit significant consideration as well.

Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted in part). Here, the ALJ included in her decision a substantial discussion as to why she weighed the medical opinions as to Plaintiff's functional limitations as she did and as to how she formulated Plaintiff's RFC.

The ALJ discussed at significant length how Dr. Kalata's opinions were inconsistent with the medical record, Plaintiff's treatment history, and the other medical opinions. (R. 71-72). Indeed, the ALJ provided very specific examples of ways in which the record was inconsistent with Dr. Kalata's opinion, such as the lack of any evidence of her need to lie down unpredictably. (R. 71). She also noted that Dr. Kalata opined that Plaintiff had marked limitations in daily activities despite having previously noted in his records that she could perform her activities of daily living. (R. 71, 589, 625). The ALJ further noted that Dr. ...

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