United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
MARILYN HEFFLEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Witherspoon (“Witherspoon” or
“Plaintiff”) seeks review, pursuant to 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), of the Commissioner of Social Security's
(“Commissioner”) decision denying his claims for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”).For the reasons that follow,
Witherspoon's Request for Review will be DENIED.
PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND BACKGROUND
was born on October 10, 1964. R. at 23. He has at least a
high school education and is able to communicate in English.
Id. He has previous work experience as a maintenance
food service worker, kitchen helper, and security guard.
Id. On May 5, 2014, Witherspoon protectively filed
applications for DIB pursuant to Title II of the Social
Security Act (the “Act”) and for SSI pursuant to
Title XVI of the Act. Id. at 15. He alleged that he
had become disabled on August 30, 2013 due to depression,
bipolar disorder, and anxiety. Id. at 53. His
applications were initially denied on September 25, 2014.
Id. at 15. Witherspoon then filed a written request
for a hearing on November 24, 2014. Id. A hearing
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) was
held on January 19, 2017. Id. at 34-52. On May 2,
2017, the ALJ issued an opinion finding that Witherspoon was
not disabled. Id. at 12-30. Witherspoon filed a
timely appeal with the Appeals Council on May 12, 2017.
Id. at 131-33. On August 27, 2018, the Appeals
Council denied Witherspoon's request for review, thereby
affirming the decision of the ALJ as the final decision of
the Commissioner. Id. at 1-6. Witherspoon then
commenced this action in federal court.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
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), 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, 416.920 (references to other
decision, the ALJ found that Witherspoon suffered from the
following severe impairments: depression and degenerative
disorders of the spine. 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
Witherspoon retained the residual functional capacity
[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except he can do no more than occasional crawling,
kneeling, stooping, and climbing of stairs, and he cannot be
exposed to unprotected heights. He is capable of sustaining
attention for at least two-hour increments throughout an
eight-hour workday. He cannot understand, remember or apply
complex instructions or work procedures. He possesses the
ability to adapt and manage himself sufficiently to tolerate
usual work conditions and understand, remember and apply
routine work procedures and instructions. He is capable of
interacting with coworkers, supervisors, and the public on a
less than frequent but more than occasional basis.
Id. at 19. Based on this RFC determination, the ALJ
concluded that Witherspoon was unable to perform any past
relevant work. Id. at 23. However, relying on the
vocational expert who appeared at the hearing, the ALJ found
that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in
the national economy that Witherspoon could perform, such as
a sorter of small products, an assembler, and an inspector.
Id. at 24. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that
Witherspoon was not disabled. Id.
WITHERSPOON'S REQUEST FOR REVIEW
Request for Review, Witherspoon contends that the ALJ's
RFC determination was not supported by substantial evidence
because: (1) the ALJ improperly discounted the opinions of
his primary care physician, Vincent Baldino, D.O., and
consultative examiner, Floyretta Pinkard, M.D.; (2) the ALJ
improperly discounted the nature and extent of
Witherspoon's severe mental impairments; and (3) the ALJ
failed to consider the impact of Witherspoon's obesity
and fatigue on his ability to perform sustained light work.
Social Security Law
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.
The ALJ Did Not Err in Evaluating the Opinions of Drs.
Baldino and Pinkard
contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment was not supported
by substantial evidence because the ALJ did not properly
evaluate the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Baldino,
or consultative examiner, Dr. Pinkard. Pl.'s Br. (Doc.
No. 13) at 3-10. This argument lacks merit.
the 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). 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. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(6),
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 her] conclusion sufficient to enable meaningful
judicial review.” Diaz v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 504 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting
Burnett v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112,
119-20 (3d Cir. 2000)). Here, the ALJ provided an adequate