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Samol v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 24, 2019

ROBERT GRANT SAMOL Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          DONETTA W. AMBROSE UNITED STATES SENIOR DISTRICT JUDGE

         Synopsis

         Plaintiff Robert Grant Samol (“Samol”) applied for supplemental security income in April 2016 alleging disability beginning October 15, 2012. (R. 15).[1] He alleged disability based upon both physical and mental impairments beginning in October 2012. (R. 15) He was represented by counsel at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), during which both he and a vocational expert (“VE”) appeared and testified. (R. 15) Ultimately, the ALJ denied benefits and the Appeals Council denied Samol's request for review. He then filed this appeal. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. 8 and 10. For the reasons below, the ALJ's decision is vacated and the decision is remanded for further consideration.

         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 on 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.

         A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence; 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

         The ALJ denied Samol's claim for benefits. More specifically, at step one, the ALJ found that Samol has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 5, 2016, the application date. (R. 17) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Samol suffers from the following severe impairments: narcolepsy with cataplexy, headaches, degenerative disc disease, mood disorder, and somatic symptom disorder. (R. 17) She considered several other impairments but found them to be non-severe. (R. 17-18) At step three, the ALJ determined that Samol 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. 18-20) Between steps three and four, the ALJ decided that Samol has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform less than sedentary work with certain restrictions. (R. 20-25) At step four, the ALJ found that Samol cannot perform his past relevant work. (R. 25) At the fifth step of the analysis, the ALJ concluded that, considering Samol's age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform. (R. 26-27)

         III. Discussion

         1. Severe Impairment

         The ALJ determined that Samol suffered from several severe impairments at the second step of the analysis. Even so, Samol urges that the ALJ erred in failing to find that his anemia, chronic fatigue, migraines, neuralgia and monoclonal gammopathy similarly qualified as severe impairments. See ECF Docket No. 9, p. 9. The ALJ evaluated Samol's assertions related to these conditions but rejected them because these conditions had been responsive to treatment, caused no more than minimally vocationally relevant limitations, were not expected to last for more than 12 months, or had not been properly diagnosed by an acceptable medical source. (R. 17-18) Substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision in this regard. (R. 17-18) Consequently, I find no basis for remand.

         Even accepting Samol's position as correct for purposes of argument, such an error would have been harmless because the ALJ found that Samol did suffer from impairments which qualified as “severe.” The ALJ found that Samol suffered from the severe impairments of narcolepsy with cataplexy, headaches, degenerative disc disease, mood disorder, and somatic symptom disorder. In other words, the ALJ did not end the analysis at the second step. SeeSalles v. Comm'r. of Soc. Sec., 229 Fed.Appx. 140, 145 n. 2 (3d Cir. 2007) (stating that, “[b]ecause the ALJ found in Salle's favor at Step Two, even if he had erroneously concluded that some of her other impairments were non-severe, any error was harmless.”), citing,Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 553 (3d Cir. 2005). See also, Roberts v. Astrue, Civ. No. 8-625, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91559, at * 5 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 30, 2009) (finding that, “[e]ven assuming that the ALJ failed to include all of the Plaintiff's severe impairments at step two, this would be harmless error, as the ALJ did not make his disability determination at this step. Indeed, remand would not affect the outcome of this case and is not warranted.”); and Bliss v. Astrue, Civ. No. 8-980, 2009 WL 413757 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 18, 2009) (stating that, “as long as a claim is not denied at step two, it is not generally necessary for the ALJ to have ...


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