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Snyder v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 23, 2019

LYNN SNYDER, Plaintiff,


          Alan N. Bloch United States District Judge

         AND NOW, this 23rd day of September, 2019, upon consideration of the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, the Court, upon review of the Acting Commissioner of Social Security's final decision, 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 Acting Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly, affirms. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jesurum v. Secretary of U.S. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 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 (Doc. No. 13) is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 16) is GRANTED.



[1]Plaintiff argues that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by: (1) failing to find at Step Two of the sequential analysis that Plaintiff's vestibular disorder and weight loss were “severe” impairments; (2) failing to give proper weight in his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) analysis to the medical opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician; (3) failing to consider properly Plaintiff's testimony regarding her symptoms; and (4) failing to assign Plaintiff to the next higher age category in applying the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2 (“the Grids”). The Court disagrees and finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings as well as his ultimate determination, based on all the evidence presented, of Plaintiff's non-disability.

With regard to Plaintiff's first argument, the Court notes at the outset that the Step Two determination as to whether a claimant is suffering from a severe impairment is a threshold analysis requiring the showing of only one severe impairment. See Bradley v. Barnhart, 175 Fed.Appx. 87, 90 (7th Cir. 2006). In other words, as long as a claim is not denied at Step Two, it is not generally necessary for the ALJ specifically to have found any additional alleged impairment to be severe. See Salles v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 145 n.2 (3d Cir. 2007); Lee v. Astrue, 2007 WL 1101281, at *3 n.5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 12, 2007); Lyons v. Barnhart, 2006 WL 1073076, at *3 (W.D. Pa. March 27, 2006). Since Plaintiff's claim was not denied at Step Two, it is irrelevant whether the ALJ correctly found any of Plaintiff's other alleged impairments to be non-severe as long as, as discussed, infra, he properly accounted for all impairments later in his analysis.

Moreover, the Court finds here that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, which do not include vestibular disorder and weight loss among Plaintiff's severe impairments. (R. 18). A claimant has the burden of demonstrating, at Step Two of the disability determination process, that he or she has a “severe” impairment or combination of impairments. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.912(a), 416.920(c); Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-41 (1987). An impairment is “not severe” if the medical evidence establishes that the condition has no more than a minimal effect on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. See SSR 85-28, 1985 WL 56856, at *3 (1985); Newell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 347 F.3d 541, 546 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing SSR 85-28). The severity step of the sequential evaluation process thus functions as “a de minimis screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” Newell, 347 F.3d at 546; see also McCrea v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 360 (3d Cir. 2004) (holding that the “burden placed on an applicant at step two is not an exacting one”).

The Court notes that the ALJ engaged in extensive discussion of Plaintiff's allegations related to her vestibular issues. (R. 19-22). The ALJ reviewed in great detail Plaintiff's various visits to physicians, but explained that, although Plaintiff had seen multiple specialists, there was no etiology for her subjective symptoms and no definitive treatment recommended other than attempts to address her symptoms. (R. 21). The ALJ also noted that physical examinations of Plaintiff showed only intermittent and inconsistent abnormalities, her testing was nearly all normal, and none of her treatment providers placed any safety limitations on her. (R. 21). Further, the ALJ stated that, in addition to the lack of documented and consistent objective testing, Plaintiff's reports (and those of her sister) were not consistent with the record. (R. 21). Thus, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in concluding that Plaintiff's “vestibular complaints and their various descriptions in the record are not medically determinable impairments as none of the claimant's treating specialists found an objective cause for her subjective symptoms, physical examination showed only intermittent abnormalities, testing was generally normal, and the only basis for her treatment has been her subjective complaints.” (R. 22).

Regarding Plaintiff's allegations of weight loss, the Court notes that the record shows that Plaintiff's treatment providers noted her weight in their records and found her to be well nourished, well developed, appearing to be healthy, and in no apparent distress. The Court thus finds that the evidence of record fails to support Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ should have found her weight loss to be a severe impairment.

Upon consideration of the evidence presented in this case, the Court therefore finds that the ALJ's decision, which included ample discussion of the evidence of record but did not include her vestibular issues or weight loss as severe impairments, is indeed supported by substantial evidence. Moreover, as the ALJ explained in his decision, even if he “were to conclude the conditions were medically determinable impairments, the exertional and postural limitations, as well as limitations to hazards in the [RFC] would account for the attendant symptoms.” (R. 22). Thus, as noted, supra, even if the Court were to find that the ALJ erred in failing to find Plaintiff's vestibular disorder and weight loss to be severe impairments, such failure would constitute harmless error as the ALJ accounted for all of Plaintiff's work-related limitations, regardless of the diagnostic label under which they might fall, later on in his analysis.

Second, the Court finds no merit in Plaintiff's contention that the ALJ failed to give proper weight in his RFC analysis to the medical opinion evidence of Plaintiff's treating psychologist, Faisal Roberts, Psy.D. The Court notes that a claimant's RFC is the most that a claimant can do despite his or her limitations, and the determination of a claimant's RFC is solely within the province of the ALJ. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927(d)(2), 416.945(a), 416.946(c). In formulating a claimant's RFC, the ALJ must weigh the evidence as a whole, including medical records, medical source opinions, a claimant's subjective complaints, and descriptions of his or her own limitations. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.927, 416.929, 416.945. Moreover, it is well-established that “[t]he ALJ-not treating or examining physicians or State agency consultants- must make the ultimate disability and RFC determinations.” Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d 356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(1), 404.1546(c)). “The 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). A treating physician's opinion is only entitled to controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record.” Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). “If, however, the treating physician's opinion conflicts with other medical evidence, then the ALJ is free to give that opinion less than controlling weight or even reject it, so long as the ALJ clearly explains [his or] her reasons and makes a clear record.” Salles v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 148 (3d Cir. 2007). A treating physician's opinion on the ultimate issue of disability is not entitled to any “special significance, ” and an ALJ is not required to accept it since the determination of whether an individual is disabled “is an ultimate issue reserved to the Commissioner.” Smith v. Comm'r of Social Sec., 178 Fed.Appx. 106, 112 (3d Cir. 2006).

The Court finds that the ALJ did not fail to provide sufficient reasons for discounting the opinion of Dr. Roberts, nor did he substitute his own lay analysis for the judgment of Dr. Roberts in formulating Plaintiff's RFC. Rather, the ALJ fulfilled his duty as fact-finder to evaluate Dr. Roberts' opinion, considering a number of factors, and in light of all the evidence presented in the record. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.927. In fact, the ALJ specified that he was giving Dr. Roberts' opinion “little weight” only after engaging in an extensive discussion of Plaintiff's treatment records with the doctor and the doctor's medical opinion. (R. 27-28, 31-32). Specifically, the ALJ noted that, in a medical impairment questionnaire from October of 2017, Dr. Roberts assessed Plaintiff with a GAF score of 55, indicative of moderate symptoms, but she opined that Plaintiff had many extreme, marked, and moderate limitations. (R. 31-32, 729-34). The ALJ also explained that Dr. Roberts stated that Plaintiff had had 3 or more episodes of decompensation lasting at least two weeks within a 12-month period, and she predicted that Plaintiff would be absent from work more than 4 days per month. (R. 32, 733-34). Upon reviewing the record, the ALJ noted that the treatment notes from Dr. Roberts and Kreinbrook Psychological services contain unremarkable findings. (R. 32). The ALJ also remarked that Plaintiff's treatment records note some improvement with treatment, and that none of her other treating providers documented findings that would support extreme or marked limitations. (R. 32). Accordingly, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in ultimately deciding to give Dr. Roberts' opinion little weight in his analysis. (R 32).

Third, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred by failing to consider properly Plaintiff's testimony regarding her symptoms. In support of this contention, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have found that the severity of her symptoms was supported generally by the objective medical evidence, and more specifically, that it was supported by the medical opinion evidence. The Court finds, however, that the ALJ did in fact properly address the medical ...

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