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Richter v. Commissioner of Social Security Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

September 24, 2019

HEATHER RICHTER, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MARILYN HEFFLEY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Heather Richter (“Richter” or “Plaintiff”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), of the Commissioner of Social Security’s (“Commissioner”) decision denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).[1]For the reasons that follow, Richter’s Request for Review will be DENIED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND BACKGROUND

         Richter was born on March 2, 1977. R. at 21.[2] She has at least a high school education and is able to communicate in English. Id. She has previous work experience as a housekeeper/cleaner and childcare worker. Id. On January 16, 2015, Richter protectively filed an application for DIB pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”). Id. at 15. On January 30, 2015, she protectively filed an application for SSI pursuant to Title XVI of the Act. Id. She alleged that she had become disabled on January 21, 2014, due to degenerative disc disorder and spinal stenosis. Id. at 168. Her applications were initially denied on August 4, 2015. Id. at 15. Richter then filed a written request for a hearing on August 12, 2015. Id. A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was held on April 20, 2017. Id. at 26-43. On August 7, 2017, the ALJ issued an opinion finding that Richter was not disabled. Id. at 12-25. Richter filed a timely appeal with the Appeals Council on August 14, 2017. Id. at 122-23. On August 10, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Richter’s request for review, thereby affirming the decision of the ALJ as the final decision of the Commissioner. Id. at 1-6. Richter then commenced this action in federal court.

         II. THE ALJ’S DECISION

         To prove disability, a claimant must demonstrate some medically determinable basis for a physical or mental impairment that prevents him or her from engaging in any substantial gainful activity for a 12-month period. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1); accord id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). As explained in the applicable agency regulation, each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a five-step process:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled. (ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled. (iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in appendix 1 to subpart P of part 404 of this chapter and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled. (iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled. (v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (references to other regulations omitted); accord id. § 416.920.

         In his decision, the ALJ found that Richter suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disorder, spinal stenosis and obesity. R. at 17. The ALJ did not find that any impairment, or combination of impairments, met or medically equaled a listed impairment and determined that Richter retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1537(a) and 416.967(a). R. at 17-18. Based on Richter’s RFC, the ALJ found that a finding of “not disabled” was directed by the Medical Vocational Guidelines in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. R. at 21. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Richter was not disabled. Id. at 22.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Richter argues that the ALJ’s RFC determining that she could perform a full range of sedentary work was not supported by substantial evidence. Pl.’s Br. (Doc. No. 14) at 3-27. This contention is without merit.

         The role of the court in reviewing an administrative decision denying benefits in a Social Security matter under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is “limited to determining whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the record, as a whole, contains substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s findings of fact.” Schwartz v. Halter, 134 F.Supp.2d 640, 647 (E.D. Pa. 2001); see also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 28 (3d Cir. 1986); Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 285 (3d Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence is a deferential standard of review. See Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004). It is “more than a mere scintilla but may be somewhat less than a preponderance of the evidence.” Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999) (Substantial evidence “‘does not mean a large or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.’” (quoting Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 564-65 (1988))). A reviewing court may not undertake a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision in order to reweigh the evidence. Monsour Med. Ctr. v. Heckler, 806 F.2d 1185, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1986). The court’s review is plenary as to the ALJ’s application of legal standards. Krysztoforski v. Chater, 55 F.3d 857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995).

         Here, Richter contends that the ALJ erred in failing to give the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Jeffrey Radecki, substantial weight. Pl.’s Br. at 19-27. Under applicable regulations and controlling case law, “opinions of a claimant’s treating physician are entitled to substantial and at times even controlling weight.” Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)); accord 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). The regulations provide that for claims filed before March 27, 2017, such as Richter’s, a treating physician’s opinion on the nature and severity of a claimant’s impairment will be given controlling weight if the opinion is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). If an ALJ does not afford a treating physician’s opinion controlling weight, he or she may instead give it “more or less weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are provided.” Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). Factors to be considered by the ALJ in assigning appropriate weight to a medical opinion include the following: the length of the treating relationship and frequency of examination; the nature and extent of the treating relationship; supportability; consistency; specialization; and other relevant factors. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.15257(c)(1)-(6), 416.927(c)(1)-(6).

         In rejecting a physician’s assessment, however, an ALJ may not make “speculative inferences from medical reports” and may not reject a treating physician’s opinion “due to his or her own credibility judgments, speculation or lay opinion.” Morales v. Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317-18 (3d Cir. 2000) (internal quotation marks omitted). An ALJ must explain on the record his or her reasons for disregarding a physician’s opinion. Brewster v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 581, 585 (3d Cir. 1986). While it is essential that an ALJ set forth reasons for his or her decision, an ALJ is not required to use particular language or adhere to a specific formula or format in conducting the analysis. Jones, 364 F.3d at 505. The ALJ need only provide a “‘discussion of the evidence’ and an ‘explanation of reasoning’ for his [or ...


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