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Rizzo v. Saul

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

October 31, 2019



          Donetta W. Ambrose Senior Judge.

         On October 28, 2016, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income and disability benefits, alleging mental and physical impairments, including chronic pain syndrome, headaches, anxiety, and depression. Her application was denied initially, and by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) upon hearing. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Before the Court are the parties' Cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion will be granted and Defendant's denied.



         Judicial review of the Commissioner's final decisions on disability claims is provided by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) 6 and 1383(c)(3) 7. Section 405(g) permits a district court to review the transcripts and records upon 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 is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate" to support a conclusion. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). Substantial evidence may be "something less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does not prevent [the ALJ's decision] from being supported by substantial evidence." Consolo v. Fed. Maritime Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620, 86 S.Ct. 1018, 16 L.Ed.2d 131 (1966). If the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, they are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390.

         A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner's decision, or re-weigh the evidence of record; 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 - 97, 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, No. No. 10-6540, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).


         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly failed to assign controlling weight to the opinion of her primary care physician since April, 2016, Dr. Bonacorsi, and instead gave greater weight to the opinion of Meghan Brunnet, PA-C.

[Treating physician] reports will be given controlling weight where a treating source's opinion on the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments is well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record.
The ALJ must consider medical findings supporting the treating physician's opinion that the claimant is disabled. If the ALJ rejects the treating physician's assessment, he may not make "speculative inferences from medical reports," and may reject "a treating physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical evidence."

Whaley v. Berryhill, No. 18-720, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 70424, at *21-22 (D. Del. Apr. 26, 2019)

         Dr. Bonacorsi completed a medical source statement form indicating that Plaintiff could walk zero city blocks without resting or severe pain; sit for one hour, stand for ten minutes, sit and stand/walk a total of two hours in an 8-hour workday. He opined that she could never twist, stoop, crouch/squat, climb stairs, or climb ladders. He further indicated that she would be off task 25 percent or more of the workday, and was incapable of even low stress work. Ms. Burnett wrote a short letter in 2016, stating that due to Plaintiff's “moderately severe bilateral knee DJD” she was limited to “[s]edentary/desk-type work with the ability to stand/move legs when needed, ” no standing/walking more than ten minutes at a time, and no “kneeling/crawling/squatting/climbing.” Dr. Rabinovich, the consulting physician who examined Plaintiff in 2015, also opined that Plaintiff could never stoop, kneel, crouch, climb ladders, or crawl, but that she could occasionally climb stairs and ramps, and sit for two hours at a time, and four hours total in an eight-hour workday. Dr. Rabinovich also noted that Plaintiff had the ability to perform activities like shopping, and prepare a simple meal and feed herself. He also opined that Plaintiff could not “walk a block at a reasonable pace on rough or uneven surfaces.”

         The ALJ assigned Dr. Bonacorsi's opinion “little weight.” The ALJ explained that the record did not support the extreme limitiations opined to - for example, the ALJ stated, the limitations that Plaintiff “can walk 0 blocks, ” and sit for one hour, and stand for ten minutes. The ALJ rejected Dr. Bonacorsi's opinion that claimant could “never climb stairs, crouch, twist, or stoop” because “a stooping action is needed just to sit, and nothing in the record supports that the claimant cannot sit.” She explained that his opinions were “overall” inconsistent with and not supported by his own treatment records, and inconsistent with Plaintiff's testimony regarding her activities, such as her ability to drive, cook, shop, and do some cleaning. As regards Ms. Brunnet, the ALJ noted that Ms. Brunnet was a physician's assistant and not a physician or nurse, but assigned “some weight to her assessments, given the treating relationship she had with the claimant.” The ALJ further gave “some weight” to the 2015 opinion of Dr. Rabinovich, As with the opinion of Dr. Bonacorsi, however, the ALJ rejected certain specific limitations opined to by Dr. Rabinovich. She rejected his opinion of “no stooping” because it “is contradicted by the claimant's ability to sit, which requires a stooping motion.” Other than the specific limitations addressed, the ALJ did not note any overarching or underlying reason for rejecting Dr. Rabinovich's opinion. Indeed, she observed that “[Other than the specifically rejected limitations], the majority of Dr. Rabinovich's assessments are consistent with and supported by his own exam findings as well as the cumulative evidence.”

         The ALJ's decision raises several concerns. Both Dr. Bonacorsi and Dr. Rabinovich opined that Plaintiff could never stoop. The ALJ, however, rejected the stooping limitation imposed by Drs. Bonacorsi and Rabinovich specifically because ...

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