United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
N. Bloch United States District Judge
NOW, this 30th day of December, 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., prior
to April 10, 2018, finds that the Commissioner's findings
are supported by substantial evidence and, accordingly,
affirms. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Jesurum v.
Secretary of U.S. Department of Health & Human
Services, 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. 1981))
IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment (document No. 9) is DENIED and that Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (document No. 14) is GRANTED.
 Plaintiff argues that the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) erred in several
ways in finding that she was not disabled under the Social
Security Act prior to April 10, 2018. First, she argues that
the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of her
treating mental health care providers. She further asserts
that the ALJ failed to properly account for her claims of
fatigue in formulating her residual functional capacity
(“RFC”). Finally, she contends that the ALJ erred
in determining her RFC pursuant to Ramirez v.
Barnhart, 372 F.3d 546 (3d Cir. 2004), because the RFC
did not expressly address Plaintiff's moderate
limitations in regard to concentration, persistence, and
pace. The Court disagrees and instead finds that substantial
evidence supports the ALJ's decision that Plaintiff did
not become disabled until April 10, 2018.
Plaintiff's primary argument is that the ALJ gave
insufficient weight to the opinions of her treating
psychiatrists, Jennifer Zajac, D.O., and Sean Su, M.D.
Plaintiff correctly asserts that when assessing a
claimant's application for benefits, the opinion of the
claimant's treating physicians generally is to be
afforded significant weight. See Fargnoli v.
Massanari, 247 F.3d 34, 43 (3d Cir. 2001); Plummer
v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir. 1999). In fact, the
regulations provide that for claims, such as this one, filed
before March 27, 2017, a treating physician's opinion is
to be given “controlling weight” so long as the
opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical
and laboratory diagnostic techniques and not inconsistent
with other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2);
Fargnoli, 247 F.3d at 43; Plummer, 186 F.3d
at 429. As a result, the ALJ may reject a treating
physician's opinion outright only on the basis of
contradictory medical evidence, and not on the basis of the
ALJ's own judgment or speculation, although he may afford
a treating physician's opinion more or less weight
depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations
are provided. See Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429. However,
it is also important to remember that:
The ALJ -- not treating or examining physicians or
State agency consultants -- must make the ultimate disability
and RFC determinations. Although treating and examining
physician opinions often deserve more weight than the
opinions of doctors who review records, “[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). State agent opinions merit significant
consideration as well.
Chandler v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d
356, 361 (3d Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted in
Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ discounted the opinions
of Drs. Zajac and Su merely on the basis of limited treatment
notes implying that Plaintiff was doing well and because
these doctors referenced suicidal ideation and hallucinations
that Plaintiff denied having subsequent to November 2012.
However, this is not an accurate reflection of the ALJ's
consideration of these opinions. First, while the ALJ did
give Dr. Su's opinion little weight, he did give some
weight to Dr. Zajac's opinion, accounting for many of Dr.
Zajac's proffered functional limitations in the RFC. (R.
629-30). More importantly, though, the ALJ clearly evaluated
these opinions, and all of the opinion evidence, in light of
the entire record, which he discussed at significant length,
including the longitudinal medical records, Plaintiff's
routine and conservative treatment history, her activities of
daily living, the findings and opinions of other medical
professionals such as Rebecca Billings, Ph.D., and the state
psychological reviewing agent, Plaintiff's GAF scores,
and her inconsistent work history. (R. 626-30). Indeed, the
Court notes that the opinions of Drs. Zajac and Su are not
even particularly consistent with each other. The ALJ was
quite thorough and specific in discussing how he formulated
the RFC based on all of the record evidence, and his
determination is supported by substantial evidence.
Plaintiff's second argument - that the ALJ
inadequately accounted for her claims of fatigue - fares no
better. The ALJ specifically discussed Plaintiff's claims
of drowsiness and included limitations in the RFC expressly
to account for such claims, as well as pain distraction. (R.
626, 628). Moreover, Plaintiff's claims of fatigue were
based primarily on Plaintiff's own subjective complaints.
While such claims were certainly relevant, the ALJ was not
under an obligation to simply accept what she said without
question. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(4),
416.929(c)(4); Chandler, 667 F.3d at 363. The ALJ
here clearly considered Plaintiff's testimony, but found
it to be not fully supported by the record. His discussion
was extensive and supported by substantial evidence. Finally,
Plaintiff does not really suggest what additional limitations
needed to be included in the RFC to more properly account for
her fatigue. The issue, ultimately, is not whether Plaintiff
suffered from fatigue, but whether this condition
“caused functional limitations that precluded [her]
from engaging in any substantial gainful activity.”
Walker v. Barnhart, 172 Fed.Appx. 423, 426 (3d Cir.
2006). Nothing in the record suggests that any additional
limitations were warranted.
As for Plaintiff's argument that the ALJ did not
adequately account for her moderate limitations in regard to
concentration, persistence, and pace in formulating the RFC
pursuant to Ramirez, the Court notes that in
Ramirez, the ALJ had limited the claimant to simple
one or two-step tasks. Here, the mental limitations found by
the ALJ in the RFC were more extensive and specific. The ALJ
found that Plaintiff was limited to “routine,
repetitive tasks that require only occasional judgment,
decision-making, workplace changes, and interaction with
coworkers, supervisors, and the public.” (R. 625).
These limitations went far beyond a limitation to simple one
or two-step tasks or “unskilled work” and
properly accounted for Plaintiff's deficiencies in
concentration, persistence, and pace.
In sum, the Court finds that the weight afforded to
the opinion evidence by the ALJ and his RFC findings were
adequately discussed and supported by substantial evidence,
especially in light of the United States Supreme Court's
recent reminder that the threshold for meeting the
substantial evidence standard “is not high.”
Biestek v. Berryhill, 139 S.Ct. 1148, 1154 (2019).
Whether the evidence hypothetically could also have supported
Plaintiff's position is irrelevant, as “[t]he
presence of evidence in the record that supports a contrary
conclusion does not undermine the [ALJ's] decision so
long as the record provides substantial support for ...