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Murphy v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 13, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security[1]


          ELIZABETH T. HEY, U.S.M.J.

         Donald Murphy (“Plaintiff”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner's decision denying his claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). For the reasons that follow, I conclude that the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denying benefits is not supported by substantial evidence and will remand the case for further proceedings pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI on January 8, 2015, claiming that he became disabled on January 2, 2015, due to a heart condition. Tr. at 66, 67, 112, 116, 162, 166.[2]The applications were denied initially, id. 68-71, 72-75, and Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing before an ALJ, id. at 78-80, which took place on June 13, 2017. Id. at 27-53. On August 16, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled. Id. at 13-22. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on September 5, 2018, id. at 1-3, making the ALJ's August 16, 2017 decision the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1472.

         Plaintiff commenced this action in federal court on November 1, 2018. Doc. 1. The matter is now fully briefed and ripe for review. Docs. 11-13.[3]


         To prove disability, a claimant must demonstrate an “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment . . . which has lasted or can be expected to last for . . not less than twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). The Commissioner employs a five-step process, evaluating:

1. Whether the claimant is currently engaged in substantially gainful activity;
2. If not, whether the claimant has a “severe impairment” that significantly limits his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities;
3. If so, whether based on the medical evidence, the impairment meets or equals the criteria of an impairment listed in the “listing of impairments” (“Listings”), 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, which results in a presumption of disability;
4. If the impairment does not meet or equal the criteria for a listed impairment, whether, despite the severe impairment, the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his past work; and
5. If the claimant cannot perform his past work, then the final step is to determine whether there is other work in the national economy that the claimant can perform.

See Zirnsak v. Colvin, 777 F.3d 607, 610 (3d Cir. 2014); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). Plaintiff bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, while the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to establish that the claimant is capable of performing other jobs in the local and national economies, in light of his age, education, work experience, and RFC. See Poulos v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 474 F.3d 88, 92 (3d Cir. 2007).

         The court's role on judicial review is to determine whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Schaudeck v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 181 F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999). Therefore, the issue in this case is whether there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's conclusions that Plaintiff is not disabled and is capable of performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” and must be “more than a mere scintilla.” Zirnsak, 777 F.2d at 610 (quoting Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005)). The court has plenary review of legal issues. Schaudeck, 181 F.3d at 431.


         A. ALJ's Findings and Plaintiff's Claims

          The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from several severe impairments at the second step of the sequential evaluation; hypertension, unstable angina, lumbar degenerative changes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), and hepatitis C. Tr. at 16. The ALJ next found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met the Listings, id. at 17, and that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform medium work, requiring lifting and/or carrying fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently, with the ability to sit, stand, and walk for six hours each, push and/or pull as much as he can lift or carry, and frequently reach overhead bilaterally. Id. at 18. He must avoid climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but must avoid working at unprotected heights, and can work in humidity and wetness, dust, odors, fumes and pulmonary irritants, extreme heat and cold occasionally. Id. At the fourth step of the evaluation, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could return to his past relevant work as an industrial truck operator. Id. at 21. Alternatively, the ALJ found, based on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), that Plaintiff could perform work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy including jobs as a stores laborer or hand packager. Id. at 22.

         Plaintiff claims that the ALJ failed to properly consider the opinion of his orthopedic surgeon, improperly gave great weight to the state agency non-examining physician, and failed to properly consider Plaintiff's obesity. Docs. 11 at 3-13, 13. Defendant responds that the ALJ properly considered the medical opinions and evidence and Plaintiff failed to allege that his obesity affected his ability to work. Doc. 12 at 5-15.

         B. Summary of Medical Evidence

          Plaintiff began treating with Millen W. Gebreselassie, M.D., on January 2, 2015, with complaints of pain and burning in both hips radiating down his legs, and recurrent chest pain for two years that spontaneously resolves. Tr. at 247. Dr. Gebreselassie referred Plaintiff to cardiologist Benjamin Silverman, M.D., who noted Plaintiff's history of hypertension. Id. at 225. Dr. Silverman ordered a stress test and echocardiogram, id. at 226, which revealed a small defect consistent with gastrointestinal uptake. Id. at 230-31, 232-33. After Plaintiff underwent a colonoscopy, gastroenterologists ...

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