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Hixenbaugh v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 24, 2019

LESA HIXENBAUGH Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DONETTA W. AMBROSE UNITED STATES SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE

         Synopsis

         Plaintiff Lesa Hixenbaugh (“Hixenbaugh”) filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits in May of 2015. (R. 12)[1] She alleged disability based upon both physical and mental impairments beginning in April of 2015. (R. 13) She was represented by counsel at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), during which both she and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified. (R. 20) Ultimately, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied Hixenbaugh’s request for review. She then filed this appeal. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. 8 and 10. For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ’s decision is affirmed.

         Opinion

         1. Standard of Review

         Judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)(7). Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon which a determination of the Commissioner is based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706. When reviewing a decision, the district court’s role is limited to determining whether the record contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ’s findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart, 312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is “not merely a quantitative exercise.” Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “A single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence – particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by treating physicians).” Id. The Commissioner’s findings of fact, if supported by substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390, 91 S.Ct. 1420.

         Importantly, a district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196-7, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must defer to the ALJ’s evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses, and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ’s findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 WL 2036692, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).

         II. The ALJ’s Decision

         As stated above, the ALJ denied Hixenbaugh’s claim for benefits. More specifically, at step one, the ALJ found that Hixenbaugh has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 14) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Hixenbaugh suffers from the following severe impairments: myocardial infarction and coronary artery disease status post stenting. (R. 14-17) At step three, the ALJ determined that Hixenbaugh does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 17-18) Between steps three and four, the ALJ decided that Hixenbaugh has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with certain restrictions. (R. 18-21) At step four, the ALJ found that Hixenbaugh is unable to perform her past relevant work. (R. 21-22) At the fifth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that, considering Hixenbaugh’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. (R. 22-23)

         III. Discussion

         I. The State Agency Opinion

         Hixenbaugh takes issue with the ALJ’s failure to incorporate in the RFC limitations expressed by Dr. Fox, the state agency physician. Fox reviewed Hixenbaugh’s medical records and concluded, in part, that she could lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. (R. 73) He further found Hixenbaugh able to sit for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and to stand and / or walk for a total of 2 hours in an 8-hour workday. (R. 73) Fox also determined that Hixenbaugh had a number of postural and environmental limitations. (R. 73-74)

         The ALJ gave only “partial weight” to Fox’s opinion. (r. 21) Specifically, the ALJ recounted those limitations identified by Fox, then explained that:

[t]he evidence generally supports most of these opinions, except the record shows that the claimant is unable to climb ladders / ropes / scaffolds, and can only occasionally push, pull or operate foot controls with her lower extremities. The record further shows that the claimant should avoid all temperature extremes and wetness, as well as, fumes, odors, gases and like respiratory irritants. I found these greater restrictions were warranted because of the ...

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