Parenzan v. Colvin
MEMORANDUM (Order to follow as separate docket entry)Signed by Honorable James M. Munley on 3/31/17. (sm)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
BARBARA J. PARENZAN,
: (Magistrate Judge Carlson)
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,1
Acting Commissioner of the
Social Security Administration,
Before the court for disposition is Magistrate Judge Martin C.
Carlson’s report and recommendation (hereinafter “R&R”). (Doc. 17). The
R&R proposes granting Plaintiff Barbara J. Parenzan’s (hereinafter
“plaintiff” or “claimant”) appeal of Defendant Social Security
Administration’s (hereinafter “defendant”) decision denying her application
When plaintiff filed this action, Carolyn W. Colvin was the Commissioner
of Social Security. Accordingly, plaintiff named her as the defendant in her
official capacity. Since then, however, Colvin left her position as
Commissioner. Nancy A. Berryhill became the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security on January 23, 2017. See OFFICIAL SOCIAL SECURITY
WEBSITE, http://blog.ssa.gov/meet-our-new-acting-commissioner/ (last
accessed March 30, 2017).
Pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure,
Nancy A. Berryhill is substituted for Carolyn W. Colvin as the defendant in
this suit. FED. R. CIV. P. 25(d) (“An action does not abate when a public
officer who is a party in an official capacity dies, resigns, or otherwise
ceases to hold office while the action is pending. The officer’s successor is
automatically substituted as a party.”)
for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits. 2 The
defendant filed objections to the R&R (Doc. 18), and they are ripe for
Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability
and disability insurance benefits on February 11, 2013. (Doc. 10-2, Admin.
Record (hereinafter “R.”) at 18). Plaintiff also protectively filed a Title XVI
application for supplemental security income on February 22, 2013. (R. at
17). In both applications, plaintiff alleges her disability began on March 31,
2011, due to: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status-post release on the
left; degenerative disc disease (hereinafter “DDD”) of the cervical spine
with radiculopathy; DDD of the lumbar spine, chronic obstructive pulmonary
Disability insurance benefits are paid to an individual if that individual is
disabled and “insured,” that is, the individual has worked long enough and
paid social security taxes. 42 U.S.C. §§ 415(a) and 416(i)(1). Here,
plaintiff’s earnings records establish that she has acquired sufficient
quarters of coverage to remain insured through September 30, 2016.
(Doc. 10-2, Admin. Record (hereinafter “R.”) at 20).
Supplemental security income (hereinafter “SSI”) is a federal income
supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social security
taxes). 42 U.S.C. § 1381. It is designed to help the aged, blind or disabled
individuals who have little or no income. 42 U.S.C. § 1381a. Insured
status is irrelevant in determining a claimant’s eligibility for supplemental
security income benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 1382.
disease; osteoarthritis of the right thumb; cystic lesion of the left wrist;
depressive disorder/mood disorder; anxiety disorder; amphetamine
dependence; and alcohol abuse.3 (R. at 21).
The Bureau of Disability Determination of the local Social Security
office initially denied plaintiff's claim for benefits on May 22, 2013. (R. at
18). Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(hereinafter “ALJ”). (Id.) ALJ Michele Stolls held a hearing on July 17,
2014, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (R. at 36-80). An impartial vocational
expert, Gerald Keating, appeared at the hearing, as did the plaintiff. (Id.)
On September 29, 2014, the ALJ denied plaintiff’s application for
disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits on the basis
that plaintiff is not disabled under the Social Security Act. (R. at 15-30).
Plaintiff then filed for review before the Social Security Administration Office
of Disability Adjudication and Review Appeals Council. (R. at 12). The
Appeals Council denied the request for review on January 19, 2016. (R. at
Plaintiff worked as a laborer and packing machine operator before the
alleged onset of her disability. (R. at 28).
1-5). Thus, the ALJ’s decision became the final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security in plaintiff’s case.4 (R. at 2).
Subsequently, plaintiff instituted the instant action to challenge the
denial of benefits. 5 (Doc. 1, Compl.). She argues that substantial
evidence fails to support the ALJ’s decision. On February 13, 2017,
Magistrate Judge Carlson recommended granting plaintiff’s appeal. (Doc.
17). The defendant filed objections to the R&R (Doc. 18), and they are ripe
The court has federal question jurisdiction over this Social Security
Administration appeal. See 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (“The final
determination of the Commissioner of Social Security after a hearing under
paragraph (1) shall be subject to judicial review as provided in section
The Appeals Council may deny a party’s request for review or it may
decide to review a case and make a decision. The Appeals Council’s
decision, or the decision of the administrative law judge if the request for
review is denied, is binding unless a claimant files an action in federal
district court within sixty (60) days after receiving notice of the Appeals
Council’s action. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.
Under the Local Rules of Court, “[a] civil action brought to review a
decision of the Social Security Administration denying a claim for social
security disability benefits” is “adjudicated as an appeal.” L.R. 83.40.1.
405(g) of this title to the same extent as the Commissioner’s final
determinations under section 405 of this title.”); see also 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)
(“Any individual, after any final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security made after a hearing to which he was a party, irrespective of the
amount in controversy, may obtain a review of such decision by a civil
action commenced within sixty days after the mailing to him of notice of
such decision or within such further time as the Commissioner of Social
Security may allow. Such action shall be brought in the district court of the
United States for the judicial district in which the plaintiff resides, or has his
principal place of business . . . .”).
Standard of Review
In disposing of objections to a magistrate judge’s report and
recommendation, the district court must make a de novo determination of
those portions of the report against which objections are made. 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(c); see also Sullivan v. Cuyler, 723 F.2d 1077, 1085 (3d Cir.
1983). The court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the
findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge. Henderson v.
Carlson, 812 F.2d 874, 877 (3d Cir. 1987). The district court judge may
also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate
judge with instructions. Id.
In reviewing a Social Security appeal, the court must determine
whether “substantial evidence” supports the ALJ’s decision. See 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g); Hagans v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 694 F.3d 287, 292 (3d Cir.
2012); Plummer v. Apfel, 186 F.3d 422, 427 (3d Cir. 1999). “[S]ubstantial
evidence has been defined as ‘more than a mere scintilla.’” Hagans, 694
F.3d at 292 (quoting Plummer, 186 F.3d at 427). It means “such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Consolo v. Fed. Mar. Comm’n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).
The court should not reverse the Commissioner’s findings merely
because evidence may exist to support the opposite conclusion. See 42
U.S.C. § 405(g); Rutherford v. Barnhart, 399 F.3d 546, 552 (3d Cir. 2005)
(stating that courts may not weigh the evidence or substitute their own
conclusions for those of the fact-finder); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d
34, 38 (3d Cir. 2001) (indicating that when the ALJ’s findings of fact are
supported by substantial evidence, courts are bound by those findings,
even if they would have decided the factual inquiry differently). 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
an administrative agency’s finding from being supported by substantial
evidence.” Consolo, 383 U.S. at 620.
Substantial evidence exists only “in relationship to all the other
evidence in the record,” Cotter v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 706 (3d Cir. 1981),
and “must take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its
weight.” Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1971).
“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.’”
Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (quoting Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1066
(3d Cir. 1993)). The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was
accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for rejecting
certain evidence. Johnson v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 204 (3d
Cir. 2008). Thus, a reviewing court must scrutinize the record as a whole.
Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981).
To receive disability benefits, the plaintiff must demonstrate 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.
§ 423(d)(1)(A) (emphasis added). An individual is incapable of engaging in
“substantial gainful activity” when “his physical or mental impairment or
impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his
previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work
experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which
exists in the national economy[.]” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The Commissioner evaluates disability insurance and supplemental
security income claims with a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a)(4). This analysis requires the Commissioner to consider, in
sequence, whether a claimant (1) is engaging in substantial gainful activity;
(2) has an impairment, or combination of impairments, that is severe; (3)
has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals the
requirements of a “listed impairment”; (4) has the “residual functional
capacity” to return to his or her past work; and (5) if not, whether he or she
can perform other work in the national economy. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v) and 416.920(a)(4).
Applying the five-step sequential analysis to the instant case, the ALJ
found at Step 1 that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity
since March 31, 2011. (R. at 20). At Step 2, she found that plaintiff has the
following severe impairments: bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, status-post
release on the left; DDD of the cervical spine with radiculopathy; DDD of
the lumbar spine, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; osteoarthritis of
the right thumb; cystic lesion of the left wrist; depressive disorder/mood
disorder; anxiety disorder; amphetamine dependence; and alcohol abuse.
(R. at 21). At Step 3, the ALJ found that plaintiff does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals
the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. at 22).
The ALJ next determined that plaintiff has the residual functional
capacity (hereinafter “RFC”) to:
Perform light work . . . . Claimant can lift/carry 10 pounds
frequently and up to 20 pounds occasionally. She can sit,
stand, and walk 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She is
limited to occupations that require no more than
occasional postural maneuvers, such as balancing,
stooping, kneeling, crouching, and climbing on ramps and
stairs. She must avoid occupations that require climbing
on ladders, ropes, and scaffolds or crawling. She is
limited to occupations that require no more than
occasional pushing and pulling with the upper extremities
to include the operation of hand levers. She must avoid
occupations that require overhead reaching with the
upper extremities to include overhead work. She must
avoid concentrated prolonged exposure to fumes, odors,
dusts, gases, chemical irritants, environments with poor
ventilation, cold temperature extremes, extreme
dampness and humidity, vibration, and exposure to
hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected
heights. Mentally, she is limited to occupations requiring
no more than simple, routine tasks, not performed in a
fast-paced production environment, involving only simple,
work-related decisions, and in general, relatively few work
place changes with no more than occasional interaction
with supervisors, coworkers and members of the general
(R. at 24). The ALJ then proceeded to Step 4 of the sequential evaluation
and received testimony from an impartial vocational expert (hereinafter
“VE”). The VE testified that plaintiff cannot perform her past relevant work
as a laborer and packing machine operator. (R. at 28).
Finally, at Step 5, the ALJ determined that plaintiff could still perform
other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (R.
at 30-31). Specifically, the ALJ found that plaintiff could work as a
pricer/marker/tagger/labeler, an assembler of small products, and a packer.
(R. at 29). Because the ALJ concluded that plaintiff is capable of making a
successful adjustment to other work, she determined that plaintiff is not
disabled. (R. at 29-30). Plaintiff then filed the instant appeal.
The Clerk of Court assigned plaintiff’s appeal to Magistrate Judge
Martin C. Carlson for an R&R. Magistrate Judge Carlson recommends
granting plaintiff’s appeal, vacating the defendant’s decision denying
plaintiff benefits, and remanding this matter for a new ALJ hearing. (Doc.
17). Specifically, Magistrate Judge Carlson determined that the ALJ’s
RFC, while detailed, conflicted with the medical source opinion of plaintiff’s
treating physician, and therefore, recommended that this case be
remanded for further consideration and reconciliation of the medical
The defendant objects to Magistrate Judge Carlson’s R&R, asserting
that an ALJ may determine an RFC without relying on medical expert
testimony. The plaintiff counters that an ALJ may not reject a treating
source medical opinion with only lay interpretation of medical evidence.
After a careful review, we agree with the plaintiff.
The Social Security Regulations provide that “medical opinions are
statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical
sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your
impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what
you can still do despite impairment(s), and your physical or mental
restrictions.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2). Treating physicians, examining
physicians, and non-examining physicians may provide medical opinions.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(2). The Regulations provide special deference
to medical opinions from treating sources who have “seen [the claimant] a
number of times and long enough to have obtained a longitudinal picture of
[the claimant’s] impairment” (“treating source rule”). 20 C.F.R.
The treating source’s opinion is entitled to controlling weight,
however, “only when it is ‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical
and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other
substantial evidence in [the claimant’s] case record . . . .’”6 Johnson, 529
F.3d at 202 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)). When the treating
physician’s opinion conflicts with a non-treating, non-examining physician’s
opinion, the ALJ may choose whom to credit in his or her analysis, but
“cannot reject evidence for no reason or for the wrong reason.” Morales v.
Apfel, 225 F.3d 310, 317 (3d Cir. 2000).
When a treating source’s opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, it is
evaluated and weighed under the same standards applied to all other
medical opinions, taking into account numerous factors, including the
opinion’s supportability, consistency, and specialization. See 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(c)(2). An ALJ need not defer to a treating physician’s opinion
about the ultimate issue of disability because that determination is an
administrative finding reserved to the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R.
In choosing to reject the evaluation of a treating physician, an ALJ
may not make speculative inferences from medical reports and may reject
a treating physician’s opinions outright only on the basis of contradictory
medical evidence. Id. at 317 (citations omitted). An ALJ may not reject a
written medical opinion of a treating physician based on his or her own
credibility judgments, speculation, or lay opinion. Id. An ALJ may not
disregard the medical opinion of a treating physician based solely on his or
her own “amorphous impressions, gleaned from the record and from his
evaluation of the [claimant]’s credibility.” Id. at 318 (citation omitted).
The court recognizes that the ALJ’s RFC must be based on a
consideration of all the evidence in the record, including the testimony of
the claimant regarding her activities of daily living, medical records, lay
evidence, and evidence of pain. See Burnett v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec.
Admin., 220 F.3d 112, 121-22 (3d Cir. 2000). Only on rare occasions can
an ALJ’s residual functional capacity determination be made without an
assessment from a physician regarding the claimant’s functional abilities.
See Doak v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 29 (3d Cir. 1986) (stating that “no
physician suggested that the activity Doak could perform was consistent
with the definition of light work set forth in the regulations, and therefore the
ALJ’s conclusion that he could is not supported by substantial evidence.”).
An ALJ cannot speculate a claimant’s RFC but must have medical
evidence, and generally a medical opinion regarding the functional
capabilities of the claimant, supporting their determination. See Tilton v.
Colvin, 184 F. Supp. 3d 135, 146-47 (MD. Pa. 2016); Ennis v. Astrue, No.
4:11-CV-1788, 2013 WL 74375, at *7 (M.D. Pa. Jan. 4, 2013); Gunder v.
Astrue, No. 4:11-CV-300, 2012 WL 511936, at *14-16 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 15,
In the instant matter, plaintiff’s treating physician, Dr. Kraynak, treated
plaintiff on a monthly basis for over ten (10) years. (R. at 336). Dr.
Kraynak noted that plaintiff suffers from bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome,
severe degenerative disease of the cervical spine, lumbosacral spine
In Gunder, Judge Richard Conaboy reconciled the case of Chandler v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 667 F.3d. 356, 361-63 (3d Cir. 2011) with Doak v.
Heckler, 790 F.2d 26, 29 (3d Cir.1986) stating that:
Any argument from the Commissioner that his
administrative law judges can set the residual function
capacity in the absence of medical opinion or evidence
must be rejected in light of Doak. Furthermore, any
statement in Chandler which conflicts (or arguably
conflicts) with Doak is dicta and must be disregarded. See
Government of Virgin Islands v. Mills, 634 F.3d 746, 750
(3d Cir. 2011) (holding that a three member panel of the
Court of Appeals cannot set aside or overrule a
precedential opinion of a prior three member panel).
Gunder, 2012 WL 511936 at *15.
disease, major anxiety disorder, and Raynaud’s Syndrome. (R. at 537-41,
605, 609). Based on his extensive treatment history with plaintiff, Dr.
Kraynak opined that plaintiff is limited in her ability to perform the following
work related activities: (1) lifting less than ten (10) pounds occasionally;
and (2) sitting, standing, and walking for a combined total of less than eight
(8) hours per workday. (R. at 336-37, 529-31). Dr. Kraynak also noted that
plaintiff is severely limited with respect to reaching, handling, and using her
The ALJ assigned “little weight” to Dr. Kraynak’s medical opinion,
noting only that Dr. Kraynak’s “treatment notes lack any significant
objective physical examination findings to support such significant
limitation.” (R. at 27). In making this finding, however, the ALJ interpreted
Dr. Kraynak’s treatment notes in a vacuum instead of observing the totality
of plaintiff’s medical condition and treatments. Stated differently, at the
same time Dr. Kraynak observed plaintiff on a monthly basis for over ten
(10) years, Dr. Kraynak also had all information provided to him by other
medical sources, as well as radiographic records which he ordered. (R. at
370, 376-81, 386, 396, 403, 409, 424, 443, 462, 465-66). Thus, the ALJ’s
lay opinion that Dr. Kraynak’s treatment notes lack any significant objective
physical examination findings to support plaintiff’s limitations is an
inappropriate ground to disregard the opinion of plaintiff’s treating
physician. See Plummer, 186 F.3d at 429 (holding that an ALJ may not
evaluate medical evidence based on her own lay opinion).
For the above-stated reasons, we find that substantial evidence does
not support the ALJ’s decision denying plaintiff’s applications for disability
insurance and supplemental security income benefits. Thus, we will
overrule the defendant’s objection, adopt the R&R, vacate the defendant’s
decision, and remand for a new hearing. An appropriate order follows.
s/ James M. Munley
JUDGE JAMES M. MUNLEY
United States District Court
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