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Witherspoon v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

October 15, 2019

BRYANT WITHERSPOON, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL,[1] Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MARILYN HEFFLEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Bryant 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”).[2]For the reasons that follow, Witherspoon's Request for Review will be DENIED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY AND BACKGROUND

         Witherspoon was born on October 10, 1964. R. at 23.[3] 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.

         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), 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 regulations omitted).

         In his 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 (“RFC”) to:

[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.

         III. WITHERSPOON'S REQUEST FOR REVIEW

         In his 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.

         IV. DISCUSSION

         A. Social Security Law

         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).

         B. The ALJ Did Not Err in Evaluating the Opinions of Drs. Baldino and Pinkard

         Witherspoon 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.

         Under the applicable regulations and controlling case law, [4] “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), 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 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 ...


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