MASON v. COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY
MEMORANDUM AND/OR OPINION. SIGNED BY MAGISTRATE JUDGE SCOTT W. REID ON 1/18/23. 1/18/23 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(rf, )
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
MELINDA SHAWN MASON
o/b/o PERRY MASON (deceased)
Acting Commissioner of
SCOTT W. REID
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
DATE: January 18, 2023
Perry Mason (“Mason”) filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). However, he passed away from COVID on April 14,
2021, while his action was pending. Record at 176. His wife, Melinda Shawn Mason, was
substituted as a party of interest. Record at 177, 204. She brings this action under 42 U.S.C.
§405(g) to obtain review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying
benefits. Ms. Mason has filed a Request for Review to which the Commissioner has responded.
For the reasons discussed below, I will deny her Request for Review, and order that judgment be
entered in favor of the Commissioner.
Factual and Procedural Background
Mason was born on November 18, 1964. Record at 243. He completed high school.
Record at 291. Mason worked for many years as a manager in a drug store. Id. On April 22,
2020, he filed applications for DIB and SSI, alleging disability as of October 10, 2019, caused by
gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), Type II diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy. Record
at 243, 250, 290. Mason’s disability date was later amended to November 17, 2019, the day
before he turned 55. Record at 16, 39.
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Mason’s applications for benefits were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Record
at 118, 123, 127, 137. Mason then requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”). Record at 237. A hearing, at which Ms. Mason appeared, was held in this
matter on July 13, 2021. Record at 33.
On August 4, 2021, the ALJ issued a written decision denying benefits. Record at 16.
The Appeals Council denied Ms. Mason’s request for review on June 7, 2022, permitting the
ALJ’s decision to stand as the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Record at
1. Ms. Mason then filed this action.
The role of this court on judicial review is to determine whether the Commissioner’s
decision is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402
U.S. 389 (1971); Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 285 (3d Cir. 1985). Substantial evidence
is relevant evidence which a reasonable mind might deem adequate to support a decision.
Richardson v. Perales, supra, at 401. A reviewing court must also ensure that the ALJ applied
the proper legal standards. Coria v. Heckler, 750 F.2d 245 (3d Cir. 1984); Palmisano v. Saul,
Civ. A. No. 20-1628605, 2021 WL 162805 at *3 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 27, 2021).
To prove disability, a claimant must demonstrate that there is some “medically
determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging in any ‘substantial gainful
activity’ for a statutory twelve-month period.” 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1). As explained in the
following agency regulation, each case is evaluated by the Commissioner according to a fivestep 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
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requirement in §404.1590, 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 of this subpart and meets the
duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled.
20 C.F.R. §404.1520(4) (references to other regulations omitted).
Before going from the third to the fourth step, the Commissioner will assess a claimant’s
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the
case record. Id. The RFC assessment reflects the most an individual can still do, despite any
limitations. SSR 96-8p.
The final two steps of the sequential evaluation then follow:
(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 the 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.
The ALJ’s Decision and the Claimant’s Request for Review
In his decision, the ALJ found that, prior to his demise, Mason suffered from the severe
impairments of diabetes with peripheral neuropathy, and a vision disorder including diabetic
retinopathy. Record at 19. He also suffered from GERD, psoriasis, hypertension and
hyperlipidemia, but the ALJ found that these were well controlled by medication and were not
severe. Id. Mason was also mildly obese, which the ALJ stated that he accounted for in
considering Mason’s functional abilities. Id. The ALJ found that none of Mason’s impairments,
and no combination of impairments met or medically equaled a listed impairment. Record at 1920.
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The ALJ decided that, during the period under consideration, Mason retained the RFC to
work at the medium exertional level with the following limitations:
He could have frequently [as opposed to constantly] used hand controls and foot controls,
and frequently reached, handled, and fingered. He could not have climbed ropes, ladders,
or scaffolds. He could have performed all other postural activities no more than
frequently. He could have tolerated occasional exposure to unprotected heights, moving
mechanical parts, extreme temperatures, humidity, and vibration. He could not have
operated a motor vehicle. He would have had difficulty reading fine print and working
with small objects, but he retained sufficient visual acuity to read normal print, work with
regular-sized objects, and avoid ordinary workplace hazards.
Record at 20.
Relying upon the testimony of a vocational expert who appeared at the hearing, the ALJ
concluded at stage four of the sequential analysis that Mason could have returned to his prior
relevant work as a drugstore manager. Record at 25. Alternatively, at stage five, the ALJ
specified that Mason’s RFC would have permitted him to work as a bagger, candy spreader, or
patient transporter. Record at 26. He added:
Notably, the above jobs would have been available even were the claimant’s visual
limitations more restrictive. That is, at the hearing, I asked the vocational expert what
effect would there have been if the claimant’s residual functional capacity had more
visual restrictions (i.e., having difficulty reading normal print or working with regular
sized objects and being able to only read large print and only work with large objects).
The vocational expert provided the above jobs in response to that question.
Id. On this basis, the ALJ decided that Mason was not disabled prior to contracting COVID.
Record at 27.
In her Request for Review, Ms. Mason argues that the ALJ’s RFC assessment is deficient
in that he failed to properly evaluate the opinion of consulting physician Lee Saltzgaber, M.D.,
and failed to incorporate parts of the opinion of consulting vision specialist Zissie Siokos, O.D.
Ms. Mason also maintains that the ALJ failed to assess her subjective allegations regarding her
husband in accordance with SSR 16-3p.
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Dr. Saltzgaber’s Report
Dr. Saltzgaber, an independent medical consultant, examined Mason on July 21, 2020.
Record at 506. He reported: “Gait normal. Can walk on heels and toes without difficulty.
Squat full. Stance normal.” Record at 508. Mason used no assistive device to walk, could rise
from a chair with no difficulty, and needed no assistance to get on or off the examination table.
Id. Dr. Saltzgaber found no musculoskeletal abnormality or muscle atrophy, and noted full
strength in all extremities with no sensory deficit. Record at 509. As to Mason’s hands, Dr.
Saltzgaber wrote: “Hand and finger dexterity intact. He was able to button, zip, and tie. Grip
strength 5/5 bilaterally.” Id.
In a Medical Source Treatment form, Dr. Saltzgaber indicated that Mason could carry 20
pounds frequently, and up to 100 pounds occasionally. Record at 510. He could walk four
hours, stand six hours, and sit eight hours in an eight-hour workday. Record at 511. He could
frequently engage in handling, fingering, and feeling. Record at 512. Dr. Saltzgaber checked
off that Mason could engage in all activities listed on the form, including shop, travel without a
companion for assistance, and “sort, handle, and use paper files.” Record at 515.
In a separate part of the form, Dr. Saltzgaber indicated that Mason could also read
ordinary newspaper or book print, and determine differences in shape and color of small objects,
although he could not read “very small print.” Record at 513. However, he also checked off that
Mason would not be able to “avoid ordinary hazards in the workplace such as boxes on the floor,
doors ajar, or approaching people or vehicles.” Id.
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The ALJ found Dr. Saltzgaber’s opinion “only somewhat persuasive.” Record at 24. He
explained that the limitation to four hours a day of walking was inconsistent with Mason’s
normal gait, stance, ability to heel/toe walk and squat, as well as his normal strength and range of
motion. Id. The ALJ also wrote:
In addition, Dr. Saltzgaber’s answer as to workplace hazards is inconsistent with the
answers he provided. As such, this answer appears to be an error on Dr. Saltzgaber’s
part. If not an error, then that limitation (i.e., that the claimant cannot avoid workplace
hazards) is unsupported by objective evidence and unsupported by Dr. Saltzgaber’s own
narrative report and observations.
Ms. Mason argues that the ALJ’s rejection of these two aspects of Dr. Saltzgaber’s
report, i.e., (a) the limitation in walking and (b) the inability to avoid workplace hazards, was
inconsistent with the medical evidence as a whole. However, the record does not support Ms.
As to Mason’s limitation to four hours of walking, the ALJ clearly explained what
evidence he relied upon in rejecting it – the overwhelmingly normal physical findings. This
certainly created an “accurate and logical bridge between the evidence and the result.” Fleck v.
Kijakazi, Civ. A. No. 21-75, 2022 WL 1203845 at *4 (W.D. Pa. Apr. 22, 2022). Ms. Mason
points to the somewhat decreased reflexes Dr. Saltzgaber found in Mason’s legs, but it is not
clear how this would impair walking in the absence of any sign of sensory deficit or muscle
Ms. Mason also points to the evidence that Mason had a diabetes-related ulcer on his
right foot which took time to heal, and which he told Dr. Saltzgaber at the July 2020 examination
would be the subject of a surgical evaluation for possible osteomyelitis. Record at 506.
However, Mason also told Dr. Saltzgaber that, with reference to the ulcer, he “does not really
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have any pain and is able to ambulate without problems with the foot.” Record at 507. Further,
treatment notes from Mason’s general practitioner indicate that the ulcer first developed in June
2020 and healed by October 27, 2020. Record at 532, 536. Thus, even if the ulcer had caused an
impairment in Mason’s walking (contrary to what he told Dr. Saltzgaber), it did not last for the
statutory twelve-month period required for a finding of disability. 42 U.S.C. §423(d)(1).
As to Mason’s vision, Dr. Siokos, the consulting opthalmologist, completed the same
form completed by Dr. Saltzgaber and indicated that Mason could avoid ordinary workplace
hazards. Record at 560. Even if the ALJ had not concluded that Dr. Saltzgaber’s finding was
inconsistent with his other findings (which was logical, since it is hard to believe that Dr.
Saltzgaber would have found Mason could travel alone if he could not see approaching vehicles),
he could simply have chosen to credit Dr. Siokos’s opinion over that of Dr. Saltzgaber, who was
an internist and not an eye specialist. Specialization is a factor which an ALJ is entitled to
consider when assessing the persuasiveness of a medical opinion. 20 C.F.R. §404.1520c(c)(5).
Ms. Mason also makes the surprising suggestion that Mason’s walking was impaired by
the “mild” degenerative changes noted in his spine when his chest was x-rayed during his final
hospitalization for COVID. Record at 708, 709, 733, 767. Without any evidence in the record
that Mason ever complained of back pain, this suggestion must be rejected. Ms. Mason has not,
therefore, demonstrated any error in the ALJ’s treatment of Dr. Saltzgaber’s report.
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Dr. Siokos’s Opinion
Dr. Siokos, the consulting eye expert, examined Mason on January 18, 2021. Record at
554. After conducting a full eye examination, he diagnosed Mason with mixed astigmatism in
both eyes; mild cataracts in both eyes; “mild, non-proliferative” diabetic retinopathy, greater in
the left eye than in the right; and macular edema in both eyes. Id. He found that Mason had a
normal visual field, and that his best corrected visual acuity was 20/40 in the right eye, but only
20/200 in the left eye. Record at 556.
Clearly, Mason had impaired vision. As discussed above, however, Dr. Siokos found that
Mason would be able to avoid ordinary hazards in the workplace. Record at 560. He also
indicated that Mason could read newspaper or book print, and view a computer screen, although
he could not read very small print. Id. He could “determine differences in shape and color of
small objects.” Id. Dr. Siokos agreed with Dr. Saltzgaber that Mason could shop and travel
without a companion for assistance, but found that Mason could not sort, handle, and use paper
files. Record at 562.
The ALJ wrote that Dr. Siokos’s opinion was “persuasive and supported by the vision
record and the testimony.” Record at 24. Ms. Mason argues that, having accepted Dr. Siokos’s
report in full, the ALJ erred in failing to specify in the RFC assessment that Mason could not use
paper files. She also faults the ALJ for finding that Mason could read normal print, since he
could not use paper files (although, notably, this is what Dr. Siokos found).
The ALJ, however, carefully elicited from the vocational expert information relevant to
Ms. Mason’s concerns. The vocational expert testified that Mason’s past relevant work required
the ability to read normal print, but that his visual acuity would only have to be “average,” which
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meant that it could be “cloudy,” and that – in any event – visual acuity would be required “only
occasionally.” Record at 58.
Further, the ALJ went on to ask the vocational expert if medium-level jobs were available
if Mason was not able to read normal print and work with “normal-sized” objects, but could only
read large print and work with large objects. Record at 59. The vocational expert responded
that, although Mason could not return to his prior work in that case, he could work as a bagger,
candy spreader or patient transporter. Record at 59-60. As noted above the ALJ included this as
an alternative holding in his decision. Record at 25.
Thus, the ALJ anticipated and resolved the concerns Ms. Mason raises here. He
identified jobs Mason could perform even if he was not able to work with normal-sized print in
any fashion. Accordingly, the ALJ’s treatment of Dr. Siokos’s report did not render it
unsupported by substantial evidence.
The Subjective Allegations
At the hearing before the ALJ, Ms. Mason testified that she had been living apart from
her husband for about four years before he passed away, but that she visited him four days per
week to help him. Record at 40, 41-2. She described Mason as suffering from double vision and
pain and numbness in his hands and legs. Record at 40, 41, 45, 47-8. She said that Mason was
unable to cook because he could not grip such things as a knife, and that he dropped objects due
to numbness in his hands, and could grasp things only with both hands. Record at 41, 50-51.
Ms. Mason testified that either she or Mason’s brother, with whom he lived, did all of his
shopping, cooking, cleaning and laundry, and assisted him with bathing and dressing. Record at
50-53. Further, according to Ms. Mason, her husband could read only large-sized print, and
spent most of the day lying down. Record at 43, 50.
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In accordance with the two-step analysis prescribed by 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b) and SSR
16-3p, the ALJ first found that Mason’s medically determinable impairments could reasonably
have been expected to cause the symptoms alleged. Record at 21. However, at the second stage
he found that Ms. Mason’s testimony regarding the “intensity, persistence and limiting effects”
of these symptoms was not entirely consistent with the medical record. Id.
The ALJ followed this statement with a two and a half-page discussion of Mason’s
medical records. Record at 21-23. Mason nevertheless argues that the ALJ’s decision was “not
supported by substantial evidence because he failed to give adequate explanation to support his
conclusions as the regulations require.” Plaintiff’s Brief at 14.
As the Commissioner notes in her response, it is not enough for a petitioner to point to
evidence which might have supported the ALJ in deciding the case differently: this Court must
defer to the Commissioner’s decision as long as it is supported by substantial evidence.
Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999).
The Commissioner’s decision in this regard was, indeed, supported by substantial
evidence. Most notably, Mason’s own representations about his functional capacity flatly
contradicted Ms. Mason’s testimony. At a preop examination on June 29, 2020, preceding
exploratory surgery on his foot ulcer, Mason told his general practitioner that he “was able to
perform heavy work around the house and walk up multiple flights of stairs without getting short
of breath.” Record at 806. Swinging for the gates, Ms. Mason argues that “Dr. Saltzgaber
opined that Plaintiff was limited in his ability to walk more than 4 hours, not in his ability to
climb stairs for 4 hours.” Plaintiff’s Reply at 6. This is not a convincing argument.
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Even if Mason exaggerated his abilities on June 29, 2020, possibly to ensure he was
cleared for surgery, the record contains other representations from Mason that his physical
capacities were fairly intact. On a form Mason completed at his July 21, 2020, examination by
Dr. Saltzgaber, he indicated that he “currently” was able to drive. Record at 521. He also
indicated that he cooked once a week, cleaned four or five times per week, shopped for food
once a week, did his laundry once per month, and showered or bathed and dressed himself every
day. Id. He watched TV, read, and did online social media activities. Id. Mason also checked
off “no” in response to the question “Do you need help at home?”, where “help” included
“family.” Id. Dr. Saltzgaber included these representations in his report. Record at 508.
Mason filled out the same form six months later for Dr. Siokos. Record at 566. He still
maintained that he could drive at times. Id. He also indicated that he cooked twice a week,
cleaned twice a week, and shopped and did laundry once per month each. Id. He bathed or
showered, and dressed himself, every day. Id. Again, he watched TV, read, and did online
social media activities. Id.
According to Mason himself, then, he was able to do a great deal more than Ms. Mason
described. This is consistent with Dr. Saltzgaber’s observations of Mason’s normal stance,
normal gait, ability to squat, and not only full muscular strength, but also normal grip strength
and the ability to button, zip and tie. Record at 509. It is also consistent with Dr. Siokos’s report
about Mason’s vision. Without discussing the medical record in more detail, therefore, it is clear
that substantial evidence supported the ALJ in finding that Ms. Mason’s subjective
representations were not entirely consistent with the medical record. Record at 21.
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In accordance with the above discussion, I conclude that the Plaintiff’s Request for
Review should be DENIED, and judgment entered in favor of the Commissioner.
BY THE COURT:
/s/ Scott W. Reid
SCOTT W. REID
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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