United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
N. BLOCH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
NOW, this 26th 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. Sec’y 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.
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff’s Motion for
Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12) is DENIED and
Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 14)
 Plaintiff argues that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred by failing
to pose an appropriate hypothetical question, that contained
all of her credibly established limitations, to the
vocational expert (“VE”) in this case. More
specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ’s
hypothetical question was incomplete because it did not
include any limitations on reaching, handling and fingering.
The Court disagrees and finds that substantial evidence
supports the ALJ’s findings upon which the hypothetical
question to the VE was based.
A hypothetical question to a VE need only include
those functional limitations that are credibly established in
the record. See Chrupcala v. Heckler, 829 F.2d 1269,
1276 (3d Cir. 1987). Thus, Plaintiff is essentially arguing
here that the ALJ erred in making the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) assessment upon which his
hypothetical question was based. A claimant’s RFC is
the most that a claimant can do despite his limitations.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a).
The determination of a claimant’s RFC is solely within
the province of the ALJ. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(d)(2), 404.1546(c), 416.927(d)(2), 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. §§ 404.1527, 404.1529, 404.1545, 416.927,
In support of her argument, Plaintiff first notes that
the ALJ, in his decision, outlined her testimony regarding
upper extremity complaints, which included cramping, burning,
and spasm in her hands. Plaintiff also notes that she alleged
having difficulties in her written reports. (R. 219).
Finally, Plaintiff asserts that her treating physicians, Erek
Lam, M.D. and Vincent Petraglia, M.D., opined that she had
limitations in her ability to handle, finger and reach.
Plaintiff thus contends that the ALJ erred by including no
limitations on handling or reaching in her RFC, despite the
existence of this evidence in the record.
The Court notes at the outset that Plaintiff has not
identified any objective evidence of handling or reaching
limitations, and she has cited only to her testimony and her
written reports-all subjective evidence-in support of her
manipulative limitations. The regulations, however, provide
that a claimant’s statements alone are not sufficient
to establish functional limitations or disability.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a).
Moreover, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s statements
were not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and
other evidence in the record, and Plaintiff has not objected
to the ALJ’s evaluation of her credibility. (R.
Plaintiff also states that the ALJ gave
“little” weight to the opinion of her primary
care physician, Dr. Petraglia, but that it is not clear how
his opinion was incorporated into the ALJ’s RFC. (R.
473). First, 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)). Additionally,
“[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). 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 Soc. Sec., 178 Fed.Appx.
106, 112 (3d Cir. 2006).
present case, the Court finds that the ALJ sufficiently
explained his rationale for giving Dr. Petraglia’s
opinion little weight in his analysis. The ALJ did not fail
to provide sufficient reasons for discounting Dr.
Petraglia’s opinion, nor did he simply substitute his
own lay analysis for the judgment of Dr. Petraglia in
formulating Plaintiff’s RFC. Rather, the ALJ fulfilled
his duty as fact-finder to evaluate Dr. Petraglia’s
opinion, considering a number of factors, and in light of all
the evidence presented in the record. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527, 416.927.
In fact, the
ALJ explained the weight that he was giving to Dr.
Petraglia’s opinion only after engaging in an extensive
discussion of the evidence of record, including
Plaintiff’s treatment records and other objective
medical evidence, her reported symptoms, and discussion of
her activities of daily living. (R. 20-26). Specifically, Dr.
Petraglia opined on May 18, 2017, and on July 21, 2015, that
Plaintiff could only rarely (0-30% of the time) reach up
above her shoulders, reach down to waist level, reach down
towards the floor, carefully handle objects, and handle with
fingers. (R. 473, 582). After careful consideration however,
the ALJ decided to afford that opinion little weight. (R.
25-26). The ALJ explained that, although Dr. Petraglia was
Plaintiff’s primary caregiver, he was not a specialist,
his opinion was based on primarily subjective reports, and
his records showed normal testing. (R. 25-26). The ALJ also
noted that Dr. Petraglia had referred to Plaintiff needing
life sustaining medication, but did not identify the
medication to which he was referring. (R. 26, 475). He
further noted that Dr. Petraglia’s opinion was
inconsistent with the opinion of Dr. Lam, to which he gave
greater weight. (R. 25-26). The Court thus concludes that the
ALJ’s analysis adequately explains his reasons for
giving Dr. Petraglia’s opinion little weight. The Court
also finds that, although the ALJ clearly did not adopt Dr.
Petraglia’s opinion with regard to handling, fingering
or reaching, he did limit Plaintiff to sedentary work and
found that she had other limitations (such as only
occasionally kneeling and stooping) which were consistent
with Dr. Petraglia’s other findings and thus
demonstrate that the ALJ gave that opinion some-albeit
little-weight. (R. 471-76, 580-85).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ also gave her treating
neurologist, Dr. Lam, “little weight” in his
analysis, but that it is not clear what parts of the opinion
were given weight by the ALJ. Plaintiff notes that, although
Dr. Lam found Plaintiff to be less restricted than Dr.
Petraglia did, Dr. Lam did find Plaintiff to be somewhat
restricted in handling objects and handling with fingers. (R.
Dr. Lam found on May 24, 2017 that Plaintiff could
“consistently” (meaning 70%-100% of the time)
reach up above shoulders, reach down to waist level, and
reach down towards the floor, and that she could
“frequently” (meaning 30%-70% of the time)
carefully handle objects and handle with fingers. (R. 588).
The ALJ explained in his decision that he was giving this
opinion of Dr. Lam “partial” weight (not
“little” weight, as Plaintiff stated in her
brief) because he was Plaintiff’s treating neurologist
and because his opinion was generally consistent with the
evidence of record showing intact neurologic functioning with
some sensation deficits. (R. 25). The ALJ further explained,
however, that there was no objective evidence supporting
limitations on handling objects, there was no objective
evidence supporting limitations to a 4-hour workday or the
need for extra breaks, and Dr. Lam provided no explanation
for such findings. (R. 25). Upon review, the Court concludes
that the ALJ’s analysis sufficiently explains his
rationale for giving Dr. Lam’s opinion partial weight.
The Court also finds that, although the ALJ did not
explicitly adopt Dr. Lam’s opinion ...