United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
N. BLOCH UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
NOW, this 16th 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 denying Plaintiff's
claim for disability insurance benefits under Subchapter II
of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 401 et
seq., and denying Plaintiff's claim for supplemental
security income benefits under Subchapter XVI of the Social
Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1381 et seq., finds
that the Commissioner's findings are supported by
substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See
42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 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)).
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment (document No. 9) is DENIED and that Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 11) is GRANTED.
 Plaintiff argues that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to
properly evaluate the medical opinion evidence in finding him
to be not disabled under the Social Security Act. The Court
disagrees and instead finds that substantial evidence
supports the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff is not
Plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ erred in giving
little weight to the June 22, 2015 opinion submitted by his
treating therapist, Ashley Fina, L.P.C., and apparently
approved by his treating psychiatrist, Charles Franchino,
M.D. (R. 587-91), in finding that he did not meet the
requirements of Listing 12.04, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P,
Appendix 1, at Step Three of the sequential analysis, as well
as in formulating his residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's
rejection of this opinion was not adequately explained and
not supported by substantial evidence. The Court, however,
finds that the ALJ properly analyzed the opinion evidence in
making his findings in this case.
It is well established under social security law 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), 416.927(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 he 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
As a threshold matter, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ
did not acknowledge that Dr. Franchino endorsed the June 22,
2015 opinion. It is clear that Ms. Fina is the one who
actually prepared the opinion, and that Dr. Franchino had
signed as the “approving” doctor. (R. 589, 591).
As it is not clear what “approved by” meant in
this context, it is not clear to what extent Dr. Franchino
actually “endorsed” the opinion. Nonetheless, the
ALJ, after accurately identifying the opinion as being that
of Ms. Fina, made reference to “they” when
discussing the opinion, apparently acknowledging the
signature of Dr. Franchino. (R.24). Moreover, the ALJ
discussed Dr. Franchino's treatment records and was
clearly aware of his treating relationship with Plaintiff.
In any event, the ALJ's treatment of the opinion
is supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff, in arguing
that the ALJ lacked a sufficient basis for rejecting the more
stringent limitations contained in the June 22 opinion,
essentially just disagrees with the ALJ's assessment of
the record, arguing that there is “ample” support
for the opinion prepared by Ms. Fina in the record. (Doc. No.
10 at 11). To the extent that Plaintiff invites the Court to
adopt his own analysis as to how consistent Ms. Fina and Dr.
Franchino's opinion is with the record as a whole, the
Court emphasizes that, 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.
See Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185,
1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986); Berry, 738 F.Supp. at 944
(citing Cotter, 642 F.2d at 705). Likewise, it is
not enough that Plaintiff offers his own analysis as to how
he believes the record supports the June 22 opinion.
“The presence of evidence in the record that supports a
contrary conclusion does not undermine the [ALJ's]
decision so long as the record provides substantial support
for that decision.” Malloy v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 306 Fed.Appx. 761, 764 (3d Cir. 2009). The ALJ
discussed the opinion prepared by Ms. Fina in significant
detail and provided a sufficient basis for his analysis,
pointing out inconsistencies between the opinion and the
treatment records and Plaintiff's activities of daily
living. (R. 20). He also noted Plaintiff's “lack of
motivation to participate in treatment” as evidence
that his symptoms were not as limiting as alleged. (R. 23,
Moreover, contrary to Plaintiff's contentions to
the contrary, the ALJ did not misrepresent the record or
“cherry-pick” only those parts of the record that
weighed against a finding of disability. For example,
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's decision is bereft of any
discussion of his reported perceptual disturbances, such as
visual and audio hallucinations. (Doc. No. 10 at 11).
However, the ALJ expressly acknowledged those symptoms and
explained how they factored into his findings. (R. 22-23).
The Court further notes that Plaintiff's reports of
transient perceptual disturbances were generally either vague
or not deemed to be particularly problematic. (R. 658,
746-47, 749). No. treating physician suggested any functional
limitations resulting from these limited perceptual
disturbances. Even when they became more “troubling,
” Plaintiff was assigned a Global Assessment of
Functioning score of 55, reflecting moderate symptoms. (R.
763-64). The ALJ's discussion of these symptoms, and of
the medical record as a whole, was accurate and even-handed,
particularly in light of the fact that an ALJ need not
discuss every piece of evidence in the record as long as the
reviewing court can determine the basis for the decision.
See Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 42; Tisoit v.
Barnhart, 127 Fed.Appx. 572, 575 (3d Cir. 2005).
The ALJ also relied on the opinion of state reviewing
agent Phyllis Brentzel, Psy.D., which provided for
significantly less substantial restrictions in regard to
Plaintiff's mental functional capacity. Plaintiff argues,
though, that giving more weight to the opinion of Dr.
Brentzel than to that of the treating therapist and
psychiatrist was improper. However, although “the
opinions of a doctor who has never examined a patient have
less probative force as a general matter, than they would
have had if the doctor had treated or examined him, ”
Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 320 (3d Cir. 2000)
(internal quotations omitted), where “the opinion of a
treating physician conflicts with that of a non-treating,
non-examining physician, the ALJ may choose whom to
credit.” Id. at 317. See also Dula v.
Barnhart, 129 Fed.Appx. 715, 718-19 (3d Cir. 2005). The
ALJ, of course, “‘cannot reject evidence for no
reason or for the wrong reason, '”
Morales, 225 F.3d at 317 (quoting Plummer,
186 F.3d at 429), and can only give the opinion of a
non-treating, non-examining physician weight insofar as it is
supported by evidence in the case record, considering such
factors as the supportability of the opinion in the evidence,
the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole,
including other medical opinions, and any explanation
provided for the opinion. See Social Security Ruling
96-6p, 1996 WL 374180 (S.S.A.), at *2 (1996). In certain
cases, it would not be unwarranted to give more ...