United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
JESS D. WHELAN, Plaintiff,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
Bloch, United States District Judge.
NOW, this 17th 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 Plaintiffs Motion for Summary
Judgment (document No. 12) is DENIED and that Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 14) is GRANTED.
 Plaintiff argues that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) failed to
properly evaluate the medical opinion of his treating
physician Robert W. Piston, M.D., and his treating
chiropractor Keith S. Unger, D.C., in formulating his
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and in
finding him to be not disabled under the Social Security Act.
The Court finds no merit to these arguments and instead finds
that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision
that Plaintiff is not disabled.
Plaintiff first asserts that the ALJ erred in giving
little weight to the August 3, 2017 opinion submitted by Dr.
Piston, his treating neurosurgeon, who opined that his
functional capacity was more limited than as set forth in the
ALJ's RFC findings. (R. 1166-71). As Plaintiff points
out, 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 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
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
Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d
356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted in
The ALJ here discussed the record evidence at great
length and explained how and why she found it not to support
the limitations to which Dr. Piston opined. She first noted
that Dr. Piston's opinion consisted merely of checked
boxes on a form with no significant explanation. (R. 23,
1166-71). The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has
stated that “[f]orm reports in which a physician's
obligation is only to check a box or fill in a blank are weak
evidence at best.” Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d
1058, 1065 (3d Cir. 1993). Moreover, the ALJ discussed the
objective medical evidence and indicated why it was
inconsistent with Dr. Piston's opinion. Further, contrary
to Plaintiff's claims, she did discuss Plaintiff's
activities of daily living at significant length, finding
them to be inconsistent with Dr. Piston's opinion. (R.
18, 20, 23). She discussed the nebulous nature of
Plaintiff's diagnoses and treatment for Lyme disease,
correctly pointing out that he had repeatedly tested negative
for this condition. (R. 16, 22, 342, 347, 502, 510, 514, 729,
1117-19). In addition, the ALJ cited to portions of the
record casting doubt on Plaintiff's credibility,
including Dr. Piston's statement that Plaintiff had been
“very active” post-surgery, performing aggressive
exercises early in his recovery period against doctors'
recommendations, and notes from a May 2017 EMG study
suggesting that Plaintiff substantially exaggerated his
symptoms, as he presented with a significantly antalgic gait
but was observed leaving without any gait deviation. (R. 21,
1053 1159). The Court notes that the record also contains
evidence that Plaintiff routinely cancelled or was late for
home nurse appointments while supposedly being homebound to
socialize with friends, leading to his discharge from
visiting nurse services. (R. 1000).
All of this constitutes substantial evidence in
support of the ALJ's findings as to Dr. Piston's
opinion and as to the formulation of Plaintiff's RFC,
especially in light of the United States Supreme Court's
recent reminder that the threshold for meeting the
substantial evidence standard “is not high.”
Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019).
Plaintiff essentially is asking the Court to adopt his own
analysis as to how consistent Dr. Piston's opinion is
with the record as a whole. However, 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 Dr. Piston's 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's consideration of the
matter was more than adequate, 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
The same is true for the opinion of Mr. Unger,
Plaintiff's chiropractor. As she did with Dr.
Piston's opinion, the ALJ thoroughly discussed her
reasons for giving reduced weight to Mr. Unger's opinion,
explaining that the checkbox opinion form was inconsistent
with the medical records and Plaintiff's activities of
daily living. (R. 23). She further emphasized that Mr.
Unger's opinion was inconsistent with that of Dr. Piston,
as the limitations to which Mr. Unger opined “far
exceed the limitations outlined by treating orthopedist Dr.
Piston.” (Id.). The ALJ also noted that Mr.
Unger's opinion relied heavily on the fact that Plaintiff
had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, fibromyalgia, and
fatigue, which was not only questionable but also outside of
the chiropractor's field of expertise. (Id.).
The Court finds the ALJ's discussion to be sufficient and
supported by substantial evidence.
Accordingly, for all of the reasons set forth herein,
the Court finds that substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's decision ...