Harkin v. Astrue
MEMORANDUM OPINION (Order to follow as separate docket entry) - IT IS ORDERED that the Commissioners decision denying Harkins application for disability benefits is upheld. Signed by Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson on December 16, 2013. (kjn)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
Civil No. 1:12-CV-925
(Magistrate Judge Carlson)
Statement of Facts and of the Case
The plaintiff appeals from an adverse decision denying his claim for disability
insurance benefits. This application was denied after a September 1, 2010, hearing
before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), (Tr. 34-68.), in a written decision dated
October 21, 2010. (Tr. 7-19.) The record of these social security proceedings reveals
that Harkin applied for disability insurance benefits (DIB), on April 1, 2009, alleging
that he became disabled when the plaintiff was assaulted and struck by a bottle, an
injury which caused the loss of the vision in his left eye. (Tr. 114.)1
At the time of this accident, Harkin was a younger individual, approximately
42 years old. (Tr. 94.) Harkin had a sporadic employment history as a laborer and
truck driver spanning the two decades preceding this injury, and had no reported
income during many of the years immediately preceding this assault. (Tr.103, 114.)
The evidence presented to the Administrative Law Judge in this case presented
a mixed and highly equivocal picture regarding the extent to which Harkin’s left eye
vision impairments were disabling. According to Harkin, he had been blind in his left
eye since he was attacked and hit in the face on March 20, 2009. (Tr. 226.)
Following this attack, Harkin was hospitalized for two days, from March 21 to March
23 of 2009. (Tr. 176.) On March 21, 2009, Harkin underwent surgical repair of the
ruptured globe of his left eye, removal of an intraocular foreign body from his left
eye, and suturing of superficial facial lacerations. (Tr. 159.)
In the immediate wake of this injury, Harkin’s treating ophthalmologist, Dr.
Rachel Peck , completed a Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Employability
Harkin’s April 2009 application alleged an onset date of February 1, 2006,
for this vision related disability, (Tr. 114.), although other records indicated that
Harkin suffered this eye injury at a much later date, March of 2009. (Tr. 226.) For
purposes of this appeal, we need not resolve this three year discrepancy in the date
of onset of this disability.
Assessment form on April 14, 2009, in which she found that Harkin was only
disabled for a limited six month period of time from March through September 2009,
due to his eye injury. (Tr. 464.) Dr. Peck’s findings of only a temporary disability
for Harkin were then echoed on August 3, 2009, when Govind Kachhadiya, M.D.,
Harkin’s primary care physician at Wilkes Academic Medicine, informed Harkin that
his left eye blindness was not a permanent disability unless it was found to be
disabling by his treating ophthalmologist. (Tr. 269.) As Dr. Kachhadiya explained
to Harkin: “Discussed that disability with one eye blindness is not permanent unless
stated by ophthalmologist and severe vision issue. At this point gave 3 months
disability for follow up and will decide in the near future–possible I can not extend
it after this period. Patient seems understanding . . . .” (Id.)
While Harkin’s primary care physician concluded by August 2009 “that
disability with one eye blindness is not permanent unless stated by ophthalmologist
and severe vision issue,” (Tr. 269.), Harkin’s disability claim received very little
subsequent support from his treating ophthalmologists. Thus, in September 2009,
Harkin’s treating ophthalmologist, Dr. Gregory Notz, simply assessed Harkin as
temporarily disabled, noting in response to a question regarding whether Harkin
might be a candidate for Social Security disability or SSI benefits, “not yet.” (Tr.
405.) Dr. Notz repeated this equivocal judgment in February 2010 when he
completed another Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Employability
Assessment form, in which he opined that Harkin was temporarily disabled from
March 21, 2009, until March 21, 2010. (Tr. 420.) In response to whether Harkin
might be a candidate for Social Security Disability or SSI benefits, Dr. Notz wrote,
“N/A [not applicable].” (Tr. 420.)
Dr. Notz expanded on these views, suggesting that Harkin was not totally
disabled, in a March 16, 2010, letter to plaintiff’s counsel. (Tr. 414-15.) In this
correspondence Dr. Notz stated: “With respect to [Mr. Harkin’s] work status, since
I do not know what kind of work he does, I really cannot answer this for you. He
needs to avoid work that involves depth perception, heavy equipment and machinery,
CDL license or doing anything that required the use of a microscope is not possible.
Otherwise, I do not see any specific medical contraindication to his returning to
work.” (Tr. 415.)(emphasis added).2
It is against the backdrop of this profoundly mixed and equivocal medical
record that the ALJ conducted a hearing into Harkin’s disability claim on September
1, 2010. (Tr. 32-66.) Harkin testified at this hearing, describing a level of personal
Indeed, the only doctor to provide consistent, unqualified findings of
temporary disability was Harkin’s gastroenterologist. (Tr. 465-68.) Given the fact
that this physician did not treat Harkin’s vision problems, his views were
understandably accorded little weight in the ALJ’s analysis of this case.
activity that, in some respects, was not wholly consistent with a claim of complete
disability. Thus, Harkin indicated that he did not require assistance with activities of
daily living (Tr. 47-48.), but encountered some difficulties with activities requiring
depth perception and peripheral vision. (Tr. 51-52.) Mr. Harkin also explained that
some of the limitations on his daily activities were not related to his vision
impairments. For example, Harkin testified that while he no longer had a driver’s
license, this was due to a DUI conviction, and not to problems with his vision. (Tr.
The ALJ also developed information from a vocational expert witness
regarding employment prospects for Harkin given his visual limitations. At this
hearing the ALJ asked the vocational expert to assume a hypothetical individual with
Harkin’s vocational characteristics who had no exertional limitations but was limited
to work performed in a stable environment not subject to more than occasional
changes; no exposure to moving/large equipment or machinery, loading docks,
unprotected heights, or high degrees of ambient noise; no work that was dependent
upon fine visual discrimination or depth perception; and no work dependent upon
frequent reading of written materials as a mode of communication or typing on a
computer. (Tr. 61-62.) In response to this hypothetical question the vocational expert
testified that the individual described by the ALJ would be capable of performing
thousands of jobs in the Pennsylvania economy. (Tr. 63.)
On October 21, 2010, the ALJ issued an opinion in this case denying Harkin’s
application for benefits. (Tr. 7-20.) In this opinion, the ALJ carefully summarized
the medical opinion evidence, noting that neither Harkin’s primary care physician nor
Harkin’s treating ophthalmologists had found him to be totally disabled. Rather these
physicians concluded that Harkin had the residual capacity to perform some work.
(Id.) In light of these medical opinions, the ALJ concluded that Harkin’s claims of
complete disability were not fully credible. (Id.) Instead, relying upon the medically
determined limitations identified by treating doctors, and the opinion testimony of the
vocational expert, the ALJ determined that there were thousands of jobs in the
regional economy which Harkin could fill. (Id.) Having reached these conclusions,
the ALJ found that Harkin was not disabled and denied his disability claim. (Id.)
After exhausting his administrative appeals, Harkin filed this appeal. (Doc. 1)
The parties have fully briefed this case, (Docs. 11 and 12), and, therefore, this case
is ripe for resolution. For the reasons set forth below the decision of the ALJ will be
Standards of Review–The Roles of the Administrative Law
Judge and This Court
Initial Burdens of Proof , Persuasion and Articulation
for the ALJ
Resolution of the instant social security appeal involves an informed
consideration of the respective roles of two adjudicators–the administrative law judge
(ALJ) and this court. At the outset, it is the responsibility of the ALJ in the first
instance to determine whether a claimant has met the statutory prerequisites for
entitlement to benefits. To receive disability benefits, a claimant must present
evidence which demonstrates that the claimant has an “inability to engage in any
substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or
mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. §
[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her]
physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that
[she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot,
considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any
other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national
economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area
in which [she] lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for [her],
or whether [she] would be hired if [she] applied for work. For purposes
of the preceding sentence (with respect to any individual), “work which
exists in the national economy” means work which exists in significant
numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several
regions of the country.
42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
In making this determination the ALJ employs a five-step evaluation process
to determine if a person is eligible for disability benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
See also Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 428 (3d Cir. 1999). If the ALJ finds that
a plaintiff is disabled or not disabled at any point in the sequence, review does not
proceed any further. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. As part of this analysis the ALJ must
sequentially determine: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant’s
impairment meets or equals a listed impairment; (4) whether the claimant’s
impairment prevents the claimant from doing past relevant work; and (5) whether the
claimant’s impairment prevents the claimant from doing any other work. See 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520.
This disability determination involves shifting burdens of proof. The initial
burden rests with the claimant to demonstrate that she is unable to engage in past
relevant work. If the claimant satisfies this burden, then the Commissioner must
show that jobs exist in the national economy that a person with the claimant's
abilities, age, education, and work experience can perform. Mason v. Shalala, 994
F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993).
The ALJ’s disability determination must also meet certain basic procedural and
Most significant among these legal benchmarks is a
requirement that the ALJ adequately explain the legal and factual basis for this
disability determination. Thus, in order to facilitate review of the decision under the
substantial evidence standard, the ALJ's decision must be accompanied by "a clear
and satisfactory explication of the basis on which it rests." Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d
700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981). Conflicts in the evidence must be resolved and the ALJ must
indicate which evidence was accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons
for rejecting certain evidence. Id. at 706-707. In addition, “[t]he ALJ must indicate
in his decision which evidence he has rejected and which he is relying on as the basis
for his finding.” Schaudeck v. Com. of Soc. Sec., 181 F. 3d 429, 433 (3d Cir. 1999).
Guidelines for Assessment of the Disabling Effect of a
Claimant’s Subjective Complaints
Moreover, where a disability determination turns on an assessment of a
claimant’s subjective medical complaints, the Social Security Regulations provide a
framework under which a claimant’s subjective complaints are to be considered. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1529. Such cases require the ALJ to “evaluate the intensity and
persistence of the pain or symptom, and the extent to which it affects the individual’s
ability to work.” Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 362 (3d Cir. 1999). Cases
involving an assessment of subjective reports of pain “obviously require[ ]” the ALJ
“to determine the extent to which a claimant is accurately stating the degree of pain
or the extent to which he or she is disabled by it.” Id.
In making this assessment, the ALJ is guided both by statute and by
regulations. This guidance eschews wholly subjective assessments of a claimant’s
pain. Instead, at the outset, by statute the ALJ is admonished that an “individual’s
statement as to pain or other symptoms shall not alone be conclusive evidence of
disability as defined in this section; there must be medical signs and findings,
established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques,
which show the existence of a medical impairment that results from anatomical,
physiological, or psychological abnormalities which could reasonably be expected to
produce the pain or other symptoms alleged and which, when considered with all the
evidence. . . , would lead to a conclusion that the individual is under a disability.” 42
U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A).
Applying this statutory guidance, the Social Security Regulations provide a
framework under which a claimant’s subjective complaints are to be considered. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1529. Under these regulations, first, symptoms, such as pain, shortness
of breath, and fatigue, will only be considered to affect a claimant’s ability to perform
work activities if such symptoms result from an underlying physical or mental
impairment that has been demonstrated to exist by medical signs or laboratory
findings. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Once a medically determinable impairment
which results in such symptoms is found to exist, the Commissioner must evaluate
the intensity and persistence of such symptoms to determine their impact on the
claimant’s ability to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). In so doing, the medical
evidence of record is considered along with the claimant’s statements. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529(b). Social Security Ruling 96-7p gives the following instructions in
evaluating the credibility of the claimant’s statements regarding her symptoms: “In
general, the extent to which an individual's statements about symptoms can be relied
upon as probative evidence in determining whether the individual is disabled depends
on the credibility of the statements. In basic terms, the credibility of an individual's
statements about pain or other symptoms and their functional effects is the degree to
which the statements can be believed and accepted as true. When evaluating the
credibility of an individual's statements, the adjudicator must consider the entire case
record and give specific reasons for the weight given to the individual's statements.”
SSR 96-7p. SSR 96-4p provides that “Once the existence of a medically determinable
physical or mental impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce the
pain or other symptoms alleged has been established on the basis of medical signs and
laboratory findings, allegations about the intensity and persistence of the symptoms
must be considered with the objective medical abnormalities, and all other evidence
in the case record, in evaluating the functionally limiting effects of the
impairment(s).” SSR 96-4p.
Legal Benchmarks for Assessing Treating Physician
Further, it is beyond dispute that, in a social security disability case, the ALJ’s
decision must be accompanied by "a clear and satisfactory explication of the basis on
which it rests." Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981). This principle
applies with particular force to the testimony of a treating physician, testimony that
is to be accorded great weight by the ALJ. In this regard, the legal standards
governing our evaluation of this type of evidence are familiar ones. In Morales v.
Apfel, 225 F.3d 310 (3d Cir. 2000), the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit set
forth the standard for evaluating the opinion of a physician stating that:
A cardinal principle guiding disability eligibility determinations is that
the ALJ accord treating physicians' reports 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."
Plummer [v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir.1999)] (quoting Rocco
v. Heckler, 826 F.2d 1348, 1350 (3d Cir.1987)); see also Adorno v.
Shalala, 40 F.3d 43, 47 (3d Cir.1994); Jones, 954 F.2d at 128; Allen v.
Bowen, 881 F.2d 37, 40-41 (3d Cir.1989); Frankenfield v. Bowen, 861
F.2d 405, 408 (3d Cir.1988); Brewster, 786 F.2d at 585. Where, as here,
the opinion of a treating physician conflicts with that of a non-treating,
non-examining physician, the ALJ may choose whom to credit but
"cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason."
Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (citing Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058,
1066 (3d Cir.1993)). The ALJ must consider the medical findings that
support a treating physician's opinion that the claimant is disabled. See
Adorno, 40 F.3d at 48. In choosing to reject the treating physician's
assessment, an ALJ 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" and not due to his or her
own credibility judgments, speculation or lay opinion. Plummer, 186
F.3d at 429; Frankenfield v. Bowen, 861 F.2d 405, 408 (3d Cir.1988);
Kent, 710 F.2d at 115.
Id. at 317-318.
Furthermore, when assessing competing views of treating and non-treating
physicians, the ALJ and this Court are cautioned that:
[A]n ALJ is not free to employ her own expertise against that of a
physician who presents competent medical evidence. Ferguson, 765
F.2d at 37 (1985). When a conflict in the evidence exists, the ALJ may
choose whom to credit but “cannot reject evidence for no reason or for
the wrong reason.” Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066 (3d
Cir.1993). The ALJ must consider all the evidence and give some
reason for discounting the evidence she rejects. See Stewart v. Secretary
of H.E.W., 714 F.2d 287, 290 (3d Cir.1983). Treating physicians'
reports 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); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2)
(providing for controlling weight where treating physician opinion is
well-supported by medical evidence and not inconsistent with other
substantial evidence in the record.) An ALJ may reject a treating
physician's opinion outright only on the basis of contradictory medical
evidence, but may afford a treating physician's opinion more or less
weight depending upon the extent to which supporting explanations are
provided. Newhouse v. Heckler, 753 F.2d 283, 286 (3d Cir.1985).
Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 429 (3d Cir.1999).
Similarly, the Social Security Regulations state that when the opinion of a
treating physician is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in
your case record,” it is to be given controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2).
When the opinion of a physician is not given controlling weight, the length of the
treatment relationship and the frequency of examination must be considered. The
Generally, the longer a treating source has treated you and the more
times you have been seen by a treating source, the more weight we will
give to the source's medical opinion. When the treating source has seen
you a number of times and long enough to have obtained a longitudinal
picture of your impairment, we will give the source's opinion more
weight than we would give it if it were from a non-treating source.
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)(I).
Additionally, the nature and extent of the doctor-patient relationship is
considered. The Regulations state:
Generally, the more knowledge a treating source has about your
impairment(s) the more weight we will give to the source's medical
opinion. We will look at the treatment the source has provided and at
the kinds and extent of examinations and testing the source has
performed or ordered from specialists and independent laboratories. For
example, if your ophthalmologist notices that you have complained of
neck pain during your eye examinations, we will consider his or her
opinion with respect to your neck pain, but we will give it less weight
than that of another physician who has treated you for the neck pain.
When the treating source has reasonable knowledge of your
impairment(s), we will give the source’s opinion more weight than we
would give it if it were from a nontreating source.
20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)(ii).
Analysis of Visual Impairment Claims Arising Out of
Loss of Vision in One Eye
Applying these principles to social security disability claims involving the loss
of vision in one eye, courts have frequently sustained the denial of such claims in the
past, finding that this loss of vision in one eye is not per se disabling. See e.g., Story
v. Astrue, 294 F. App'x 883 (5th Cir. 2008); Siebert v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 105 F.
App'x 744, 745 (6th Cir. 2004); Banks v. Massanari, 258 F.3d 820, 822 (8th Cir.
2001); Cockerham v. Sullivan, 895 F.2d 492, 496 (8th Cir. 1990) citing Cummins v.
Schweiker, 670 F.2d 81, 84 (7th Cir.1982) (court upholds ALJ's finding that
blindness in one eye had not interfered with previous work); Bradley v. Sec'y of
Health & Human Servs., 862 F.2d 1224, 1226 (6th Cir. 1988). But see, Cooper v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 268 F. App'x 152, 157 (3d Cir. 2008)(Claimant blind in one eye
and losing vision in the remaining eye). Instead, the courts recognize that this loss
of visual acuity in one eye is simply a factor which must be taken into account when
determining whether a disability claimant has the residual capacity to perform work
in the national economy. Where the evidence shows that a claimant retains the ability
to perform work in the national economy notwithstanding a visual impairment in one
eye, a disability finding is unwarranted, and the decision of an ALJ denying benefits
should be affirmed. Id. As one commentator has observed: “[E]ven if a claimant's
visual impairment or impairments were to eliminate all jobs that involve very good
vision, such as working with small objects or reading small print, there would still be
a substantial number of jobs remaining across all exertional levels, according to SSA
policy, as long as the claimant retains sufficient visual acuity to be able to handle and
work with rather large objects and has the visual fields to avoid ordinary hazards in
a workplace.” 3 Soc. Sec. Law & Prac. § 43:46 (Dec. 2013 ed.) (collecting cases).
However, because visual acuity plays an important role in some work settings, this
Court has cautioned ALJs to fully develop a record in these cases, by obtaining
vocational expert testimony regarding the claimant’s ability to perform work despite
these visual limitations. See Sykes v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259 (3d Cir. 2000).
Judicial Review of ALJ Determinations–Standard of
Once the ALJ has made a disability determination, it is then the responsibility
of this Court to independently review that finding. In undertaking this task, this
Court applies a specific, well-settled and carefully articulated standard of review. In
an action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security denying plaintiff’s claim for disability benefits, Congress has
specifically provided that the “findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to
any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive[.]” 42 U.S.C. §
The “substantial evidence” standard of review prescribed by statute is a
deferential standard of review. Jones v. Barnhart, 364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004).
When reviewing the denial of disability benefits, we must simply determine whether
the denial is supported by substantial evidence. Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211,
1213 (3d Cir. 1988); see also Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 529 F.3d 198,
200 (3d Cir. 2008). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large or considerable
amount of evidence, but rather such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d
Cir. 1999).” Johnson, 529 F.3d at 200. See also Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552
(1988). It is less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla
of proof. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence
means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion." Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999)(quoting
Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995).
A single piece of evidence is not substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores
countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence. Mason
v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). However, in an adequately developed
factual record, 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 decision] from being supported by substantial
evidence." Consolo v. Federal Maritime Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).
Moreover, in conducting this review we are cautioned that “an ALJ's findings based
on the credibility of the applicant are to be accorded great weight and deference,
particularly since an ALJ is charged with the duty of observing a witness's demeanor
and credibility.’ Walters v. Commissioner of Social Sec., 127 F.3d 525, 531 (6th
Cir.1997); see also Casias v. Secretary of Health & Human Servs., 933 F.2d 799, 801
(10th Cir.1991) (‘We defer to the ALJ as trier of fact, the individual optimally
positioned to observe and assess witness credibility.’).” Frazier v. Apfel, No. 9918
715, 2000 WL 288246, *9 (E.D. Pa. March 7, 2000). Furthermore, in determining if
the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence the court may not parse the
record but rather must scrutinize the record as a whole. Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d
968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).
The ALJ’s Decision Was Supported By Substantial Evidence
Judged against this deferential standard of review we find that the ALJ’s
disability decision in this case was supported by “substantial evidence” and,
therefore, may not now be disturbed. Indeed, viewing this case first in terms of the
medical evidence, it is clear that the greater weight of the evidence fully supported
the ALJ’s findings that Harkin was not disabled, and the ruling reflects a thorough,
careful, balanced analysis of all of the proof. It is, therefore, the paradigm of a
decision which draws carefully upon substantial evidence.
As to Harkin’s claims of physical disability based upon the loss of vision in one
eye, as we have noted, this decision involved an assessment of medical evidence
where the greater weight of both the objective medical findings, and medical expert
opinions, favored a finding that Harkin was not wholly disabled. Thus, the evidence
showed that the plaintiff’s subjective complaints of pain were in conflict, and were
not supported by independent medical evidence. Since “there must be medical signs
and findings, established by medically acceptable clinical or laboratory diagnostic
techniques, which show the existence of a medical impairment that results from
anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which could reasonably be
expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged,” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5)(A),
these medical results, which did not confirm the type of abnormalities which would
sustain the plaintiff’s reports of pain, constituted “substantial evidence” supporting
the ALJ’s finding.
Similarly, the ALJ’s assessment of the medical evidence rested upon sufficient
“relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion,” Johnson, 529 F.3d at 200, and, therefore, was supported by “substantial
evidence.” In this case, the ALJ correctly noted that the plaintiff’s complaints were
not consistently supported by medical treatment records. Given these conflicts, the
ALJ as fact-finder was entitled to give greater weight in this regard to the objective
medical evidence, which fully supported those medical opinions which found that
Harkin could return to work. The ALJ also quite appropriately considered the
medical opinion evidence of both Harkin’s treating ophthalmologists and primary
care physician, who consistently concluded that the plaintiff was not permanently
disabled by this eye injury. Recognizing that the “substantial evidence” standard of
review prescribed by statute is a deferential standard of review, Jones v. Barnhart,
364 F.3d 501, 503 (3d Cir. 2004), which is met by less than a preponderance of the
evidence but more than a mere scintilla of proof, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389,
401 (1971), we find that the ALJ’s decisions assessing this medical proof regarding
the plaintiff’s’s ability to function despite his various claimed impairments was
supported by substantial evidence and may not now be disturbed on appeal.
Further, we note that the ALJ followed the appellate court’s guidance in Sykes
v. Apfel, 228 F.3d 259 (3d Cir. 2000), by developing vocational expert testimony
regarding the degree to which Harkin’s vision problems might limit his employment
prospects. That testimony, however, fully supported the ALJ’s finding since the
vocational expert testified that, even with this limited eyesight, Harkin could fill
thousands of positions in the regional economy.
In sum, the medical evidence strongly supported the ALJ finding in this case.
Since the record in this matter shows that the claimant’s complete medical history
simply did not sustain a permanent disability finding, and the vocational expert
testimony illustrated that jobs existed in the national economy that Harkin could fill,
the plaintiff’s complaints do not compel a remand of this matter.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, IT IS ORDERED that the
Commissioner’s decision denying Harkin’s application for disability benefits is
So ordered this 16th day of December, 2013.
S/Martin C. Carlson
Martin C. Carlson
United States Magistrate Judge
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