SMITH v. ASTRUE
MEMORANDUM RE: MOTION TO DISMISS SIGNED BY HONORABLE MICHAEL M. BAYLSON ON 8/24/17. 8/24/17 ENTERED AND COPIES E-MAILED.(ti, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
Commissioner of Social Security (acting)
August 24, 2017
MEMORANDUM RE: MOTION TO DISMISS
In this case, Plaintiff Kaylynn Smith (“Smith”) seeks judicial review of the denial of her
application for disability insurance benefits by the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Defendant”). Presently before the Court are the competing briefs of the parties addressing the
question of whether Smith’s request for review of Defendant’s decision should be granted. (See
ECF 11, “Pl.’s Brief”; ECF 12, “Def.’s Opp’n”). For the reasons discussed below, the decision
of Defendant is affirmed and Smith’s request for review is denied.
Factual and Procedural History
Taking Smith’s allegations as true, the factual background is as follows. Smith, a fifty-
three year old woman with a twelfth-grade education, suffers from a variety of mental and
physical health ailments, including headaches, seizures, social anxiety, arthritis, obesity, joint
pain, and asthma. (Pl.’s Brief at 5-7). For sixteen years, Smith maintained employment as a
food service worker, but she ceased working after suffering a grand mal seizure and concussion
at work in February 2005. (Id. at 3).
Smith applied to the Social Security Administration for disability benefits on December
19, 2006 for a period of disability beginning February 10, 2005, but her application was denied
shortly thereafter on April 26, 2007. (ECF 1, Compl. ¶ 5). On May 9, 2007, Smith submitted a
request to have her case heard before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and a
videoconference with an ALJ was held on July 8, 2010 in Reading, Pennsylvania. (Id. ¶¶ 6-7).
The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on July 14, 2010, in which she found that Smith was not
“under a disability,” as defined in the Social Security Act, and was therefore ineligible for the
disability benefits that she sought. (ECF 5, Administrative Record, “Admin. Rec.” 42). Smith’s
subsequent request, that the Appeals Council of the Social Security Administration review the
hearing decision of the ALJ, was denied. (Compl. ¶ 9).
Smith filed the instant suit seeking review of the Commissioner’s final decision on July
5, 2012. The case was suspended for three years, and a briefing schedule was set by the Court in
2015. (ECF 8). Smith submitted a brief in support of her request for review on June 26, 2017
(ECF 11), and Defendant filed a Response requesting that the Court affirm the decision of the
ALJ on July 27, 2017. (ECF 12).
A. Determination of Disability
Eligibility for disability benefits under the Social Security Act requires a claimant to
present “some medically determinable basis for an impairment that prevents him from engaging
in any substantial gainful activity for a statutory twelve-month period.” Burnett v.
Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 118 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Plummer v.
Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999)); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1) (delineating the
“inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable
physical or mental impairment” as the statutory definition of the term “disability”).
Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520, the Commissioner must follow a five-step sequential
process for evaluating whether a claimant is entitled to disability benefits under the Social
Security Act. Id.
At Step One, the Commissioner must analyze the claimant’s current work activity and, if
the claimant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity, the claim must be denied. §
At Step Two, the Commissioner must analyze the severity of the claimant’s impairment
or combination of impairments, and if the impairments are not “severe” the claim must be
denied. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii).
At Step Three, the Commissioner must determine whether the impairment(s) of the
claimant meets or equals the severity of one of the impairments in the Listing of Impairments
presumed severe enough to preclude any gainful work, and if so, the claimant is eligible for
disability benefits. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).
If the claim is not approved at Step Three, the Commissioner must continue to Step Four,
where she must consider whether the claimant retains the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
meet the physical or mental demands of past relevant work; if so, the claimant will not be
classified as disabled. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).
Finally, at Step Five, the commissioner must assess the RFC, age, education level, and
work experience of the claimant to ascertain whether an adjustment can be made to enable her to
perform other work. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Once a claimant demonstrates she is unable to resume
the past relevant work, this step requires the Commissioner to show that the claimant is “capable
of performing other available work in order to deny a claim of disability.” Burnett, 220 F. 3d at
B. Judicial Review of Determination of Disability
Under the Social Security Act, “[a]ny individual, after any final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing . . . may obtain a review of such a
decision by a civil action.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). However, the Commissioner’s findings “as to
any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” Id. (emphasis added).
Therefore, the scope of this Court’s review 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.” Simpson v. Astrue, No. 10-2874, 2011
WL 1883124, at *4 (E.D. Pa. May 17, 2011) (Baylson, J) (quoting Schwartz v. Halter, 134 F.
Supp. 2d 640, 647 (E.D. Pa. 2001)).
The substantial evidence standard has been described by the Third Circuit as “more than
a mere scintilla” and “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate.”
Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995). Accordingly, where the findings of fact
made by the ALJ are supported by substantial evidence, the district court is bound to affirm her
decision, even if the court would have reached a different outcome in the factual inquiry.
Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir. 1999).
The principal issue as to which inquiry into the administrative record is warranted is
whether Defendant considered the opinion of Smith’s treating physicians in denying her claim
for disability benefits. In general, the medical opinions of physicians should be accorded great
weight, especially “when their opinions reflect expert judgment based on a continuing
observation of the patient's condition over a prolonged period of time.” Rocco v. Heckler, 826
F.2d 1348, 1350 (3d Cir. 1987). For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds that the ALJ’s
consideration of the medical opinions of Smith’s treating physicians is supported by the
deferential substantial evidence standard, and therefore Smith’s request for review is denied.
In concluding that Smith was ineligible for disability benefits under the Social Security
Act, the ALJ made the following findings in conducting its five-step process under the Social
(1) Smith has not engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) Smith has severe impairments of seizure disorder, plantar fasciitis, asthma, obesity,
(3) none of Smith’s impairments satisfy the requirements for any of the Listed
Impairments that preclude gainful work;
(4) Smith has the RFC to perform medium work; and
(5) Smith is capable of performing past relevant work as a dietary aide and other jobs that
require a specific vocational preparation of two.
(Admin. Rec. 36-42). The ALJ’s decision includes the extent to which she factored in the
assessments of Smith’s treating physicians, and her evaluation of the credibility of their opinions.
Because the ALJ’s assessment of the opinions of Smith’s treating physicians is supported by
substantial evidence, the decision of the ALJ must be affirmed.
Where the decision of an ALJ is contradicted by the reasoned medical opinions of the
claimant’s treating physicians, it is not supported by substantial evidence, and therefore is not
entitled to affirmation by the district court. Rocco, 826 F.2d at 1348 (3d Cir. 1987). For
example, in Rocco, the Third Circuit concluded that the ALJ’s denial of the plaintiff’s claim for
disability benefits was entitled to review, because the ALJ’s determination, which was
erroneously affirmed by the district court, “fl[ew] in the face of the medical evidence.” Id. at
1350. In particular, the Court detailed the reports of various physicians who attested to the
significant physical limitations caused by the claimant’s lower back condition, noting the opinion
of the claimant’s attending physician and surgeon that the claimant was “certainly totally
disabled at the present time for any time of work” and unlikely to “ever be able to return to
heavy work with respect to his low back because of his stenotic lumbar spine;” the opinion of
another surgeon that the claimant was “totally disabled at the present moment;” and a report
submitted by the claimant’s long-time family physician that the claimant was “totally incapable
of holding down full time employment in any type of occupation.” Id. at 1349.
In contrast, the facts of the instant case are sharply differentiable from Rocco, because
here there is substantial evidence in the record to support the ALJ’s consideration of the opinions
of Smith’s treating physicians in denying Smith’s request for disability benefits. Dr. Clifford A.
Reed, M.D., Smith’s treating physician, began seeing her for her seizures on November 22,
2005, at which point he adjusted her seizure medication and determined that she was “stable
from the seizure standpoint.” (Admin Rec. 345). Dr. Reed continued to see Smith once a year
from 2005-2009 for her seizure symptoms and as-needed for her migraines to ensure that her
condition did not worsen. (Id. 405-410). In February 2007, Dr. Reed completed a form for the
Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination, in which he indicated that Smith could
perform a range of sedentary work, including tasks that required occasional “bending” and
“stooping.” (Id. 341). Dr. Reed also provided his opinion that Smith’s impairments did not
affect her ability to “feel,” “speak,” or “taste/smell.” (Id. 341). In her decision denying Smith’s
request for disability benefits, the ALJ explained that she gave Dr. Reed’s assessment “great
weight because it is consistent with his treatment records.” (Id. 42). Indeed, the ALJ’s decision
contains frequent references to the findings and conclusions of Dr. Reed. (Id. 40-42). Dr.
Reed’s judgments—specifically that Smith’s seizure condition was effectively addressed by the
medication plan he put her on and that she was able to perform tasks related to sedentary work—
are adequately supported by medical evidence in the record, and therefore the great weight that
the ALJ put on them in denying Smith’s claim for disability benefits is supported by substantial
Moreover, this conclusion obtains support in the administrative record from the
evaluations of other physicians who assessed Smith. For example, Dr. Anthony J. Fischetto,
Ed.D., a clinical psychologist who saw Smith on March 20, 2007 assessed her prognosis as
“fair,” noting that “she could benefit from ongoing psychiatric and psychological help.” (Id.
355-358). However, Dr. Fischetto also opined that Smith “has trouble focusing, paying
attention, short-term memory, loses her train of thought in a conversation.” (Id. 358). To the
extent that Smith is asserting that the ALJ inappropriately discounted Dr. Fischetto’s conclusions
on the daily living and social functioning effects of Smith’s impairments, the ALJ properly
accounted for this, noting that she “assigned some weight to this examining source, but it is not
completely consistent with the objective evidence contained throughout the medical records.”
(Pl.’s Brief at 8; Admin. Rec. 41); see also Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (noting that the opinion of
a treating physician can be rejected outright only if contradictory medical evidence exists, but
explaining that assigning less weight to a physician’s opinion may be appropriate depending on
the extent to which a supporting explanation is provided). Additionally, Dr. Gregory Singer,
M.D., of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Disability Determination, saw Smith on April 11, 2007,
finding that she “appears to be very cognitive” and has “no limitations on standing, walking, or
sitting.” (Admin. Rec. 365-366). The ALJ noted that similar to her treatment of Dr. Reed’s
assessment, she “assigned great weight to this examining source, as it is consistent with the
objective findings contained throughout the claimant’s medical records.” (Id. 41). Therefore,
unlike in Rocco, where the Court found that “the evidence submitted by the attending physicians
was not given the credence it deserved,” here the ALJ adequately accounted for the medical
opinions of Smith’s physicians, and therefore substantial evidence supports her conclusion that
Smith was not entitled to disability benefits. Rocco, 826 F.2d at 1351.
In summary, the ALJ’s incorporation of the medical opinions of Smith’s treating
physician, Dr. Reed, is supported by substantial evidence, and this is corroborated both by other
non-medical evidence and by the opinions of other physicians who saw Smith over the relevant
time period. Because substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s denial of disability benefits to
Smith, the ALJ’s decision must be affirmed.
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s request for review is denied.
An appropriate Order follows.
O:\Jessica.2016\12-cv-3784, Smith v. Astrue\Memo Re Request for Judicial Review.docx
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?