Stephens v. Astrue
MEMORANDUM Our review of the administrative record reveals that the decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence. We will, therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) affirm the decision of the Commissioner.An appropriate order will be entered. Signed by Honorable Richard P. Conaboy on 3/2/12. (cc, )
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
TAMARA E. STEPHENS,
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE,
COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL
CIVIL NO. 4:11-CV-00005
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
The above-captioned action is one seeking review of a
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner")
denying Plaintiff Tamara E. Stephens’s claim for supplemental
security income benefits.
For the reasons set forth below we will
affirm the decision of the Commissioner denying Stephens’s
application for supplemental security income benefits.
Supplemental security income (SSI) is a federal income
supplement program funded by general tax revenues (not social
It is designed to help aged, blind or other
disabled individuals who have little or no income.
Stephens was born in the United States on December 8,
1976. Tr. 99.1
Stephens has a limited education. Tr. 44.
withdrew from school after completing the 11th grade in 1993. Tr.
1. References to “Tr.___” are to pages of the administrative
record filed by the Defendant as part of his Answer on March 16,
During her elementary and secondary schooling, Stephens
attended regular education classes. Id.
Stephens can read, write,
speak and understand the English language. Tr. 113.
attempted and failed on two occasions to obtain a General
Equivalency Diploma. Tr. 26.
Stephens has a very limited work and earnings history.
Her employment history consists of working as a cashier,
packer, waitress and laborer. Tr. 115.
Records of the Social
Security Administration reveal that she had employment in the
years 1996 ($1690.44), 1997 ($115.56), 2000 ($858.94), 2001
($6054.98), 2002 ($276.00) and 2003 ($83.70). Tr. 111.
earnings for those years were $9079.62.
Based on the description
provided by Stephens, her employment experience consists of
unskilled to semi-skilled, light to medium work. Tr. 115 and 136146.
However, the administrative law judge found that Stephens’s
work never amounted to substantial gainful activity in light of
her minimal earnings and that she had no past relevant work
experience.2 Tr. 17 and 44.
Stephens has not worked since 2003.
Stephens lives in an apartment with her boyfriend and
two children, ages 8 and 10.
Tr. 25 and 125-126.
works as a laborer for P&M Industries. Tr. 25. Stephens is able to
2. Past relevant employment in the present case means work
performed by Stephens during the 15 years prior to the date her
claim for disability was adjudicated by the Commissioner. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1560 and 404.1565.
take care of her two children and her personal care. Tr. Tr. 125129.
Furthermore, she is able to cook, clean, do laundry and go
She stated that she needs no special reminders to
take care of personal needs and grooming or to take medicines; she
is able to drive a motor vehicle and go out alone; she is able to
pay bills, count change, handle a savings account and use a check
book or money orders; and she enjoys reading, watching TV,
drawing, writing and she engages in those activities daily for
“half the day.” Id.
On December 18, 2007, Stephens protectively filed3 an
application for supplemental security income benefits. Tr. 98-105,
110 and 122.
Stephens contends that she became disabled on April
16, 1999, because of chronic pain, lupus, asthma, fatigue,
migraines, depression, anxiety
133 and 149.
and memory problems. Tr. 52, 114,
Stephens’s alleged disability onset date of April
16, 1999, has no impact on Stephens’s application for supplemental
security income benefits because supplemental security income is a
needs based program and benefits may not be paid for “any period
that precedes the first month following the date on which an
application is filed or, if later, the first month following the
date all conditions for eligibility are met.”
See C.F.R. §
3. Protective filing is a term for the first time an individual
contacts the Social Security Administration to file a claim for
benefits. A protective filing date allows an individual to have
an earlier application date than the date the application is
Consequently, Stephens is not eligible for SSI benefits
for any period prior to January 1, 2008.4
On May 2, 2008, the Bureau of Disability Determination5
denied Stephens’s application. Tr. 52-56.
On May 28, 2008,
Stephens requested an administrative hearing. Tr. 57.
10 months had passed, a hearing was held before an administrative
law judge on March 10, 2009. Tr. 19-49.
On March 31, 2009, the
administrative law judge issued a decision denying Stephens’s
application.6 Tr. 9-18.
On May 7, 2009, Stephens filed a request
for review with the Appeals Council. Tr. 4.
On December 10, 2010,
after about 19 months, the Appeals Council concluded that there
was no basis upon which to grant Stephens’s request for review.
Thus, the administrative law judge’s decision stood as
the final decision of the Commissioner.
Stephens then filed a complaint in this court on January
Supporting and opposing briefs were submitted and the
4. Furthermore, the burden was on Stephens during the
administrative proceedings to prove that she suffered from a
disability and our review of the administrative record does not
reveal any medical records prior to the year 2005.
5. The Bureau of Disability Determination is an
agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which initially
evaluates applications for supplemental security income benefits
on behalf of the Social Security Administration. Tr. 53.
6. Stephens was 22 years of age on the alleged disability onset
date and only 32 years of age at the time of the administrative
law judge’s decision. Stephens is considered a “younger
individual” whose age would not seriously impact her ability to
adjust to other work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.963(c).
appeal7 became ripe for disposition on July 11, 2011, when
Stephens elected not to file a reply brief.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
When considering a social security appeal, we have
plenary review of all legal issues decided by the Commissioner.
See Poulos v. Commissioner of Social Security, 474 F.3d 88, 91 (3d
Cir. 2007); Schaudeck v. Commissioner of Social Sec. Admin.,
F.3d 429, 431 (3d Cir. 1999); Krysztoforski v. Chater, 55 F.3d
857, 858 (3d Cir. 1995).
However, our review of the
Commissioner’s findings of fact pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is
to determine whether those findings are supported by "substantial
Id.; Brown v. Bowen, 845 F.2d 1211, 1213 (3d Cir.
1988); Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993).
Factual findings which are supported by substantial evidence must
be upheld. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Fargnoli v. Massanari, 247 F.3d 34,
38 (3d Cir. 2001)(“Where the ALJ’s findings of fact are supported
by substantial evidence, we are bound by those findings, even if
we would have decided the factual inquiry differently.”); Cotter
v. Harris, 642 F.2d 700, 704 (3d Cir. 1981)(“Findings of fact by
the Secretary must be accepted as conclusive by a reviewing court
if supported by substantial evidence.”);
Keefe v. Shalala, 71
7. 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.” M.D.Pa. Local Rule 83.40.1.
F.3d 1060, 1062 (2d Cir. 1995); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176
(4th Cir. 2001);
Martin v. Sullivan, 894 F.2d 1520, 1529 & 1529
n.11 (11th Cir. 1990).
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.’” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565
(1988)(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. N.L.R.B., 305 U.S. 197,
229 (1938)); Johnson v. Commissioner of Social Security, 529 F.3d
198, 200 (3d Cir. 2008);
(3d Cir. 1999).
Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360
Substantial evidence has been described as more
than a mere scintilla of evidence but less than a preponderance.
Brown, 845 F.2d at 1213.
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 v. Federal Maritime Commission, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966).
Substantial evidence exists only "in relationship to all
the other evidence in the record," Cotter, 642 F.2d at 706, 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).
A single piece of evidence is not substantial
evidence if the Commissioner ignores countervailing evidence or
fails to resolve a conflict created by the evidence.
F.2d at 1064.
The Commissioner must indicate which evidence was
accepted, which evidence was rejected, and the reasons for
rejecting certain evidence. Johnson, 529 F.3d at 203; Cotter, 642
F.2d at 706-707.
Therefore, a court reviewing the decision of the
Commissioner must scrutinize the record as a whole.
Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 970 (3d Cir. 1981); Dobrowolsky v.
Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 407 (3d Cir. 1979).
SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
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. § 432(d)(1)(A).
[a]n individual shall be determined to be under a
disability only if 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, regardless of whether such work
exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or
whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or
whether he would be hired if he 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).
The Commissioner utilizes a five-step process in
evaluating supplemental security income claims.
416.920; Poulos, 474 F.3d at 91-92.
See 20 C.F.R. §
This process requires the
Commissioner to consider, in sequence, whether a claimant (1) is
engaging in substantial gainful activity,8 (2) has an impairment
that is severe or a combination of impairments that is severe,9
(3) has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
8. If the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity,
the claimant is not disabled and the sequential evaluation
proceeds no further. Substantial gainful activity is work that
“involves doing significant and productive physical or mental
duties” and “is done (or intended) for pay or profit.” 20 C.F.R.
The determination of whether a claimant has any severe
impairments, at step two of the sequential evaluation process, is
a threshold test. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). If a claimant has no
impairment or combination of impairments which significantly
limits the claimant’s physical or mental abilities to perform
basic work activities, the claimant is “not disabled” and the
evaluation process ends at step two. Id. If a claimant has any
severe impairments, the evaluation process continues. 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.920(d)-(g). Furthermore, all medically determinable
impairments, severe and non-severe, are considered in the
subsequent steps of the sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 416.923 and 416.945(a)(2). An impairment significantly limits
a claimant’s physical or mental abilities when its effect on the
claimant to perform basic work activities is more than slight or
minimal. Basic work activities include the ability to walk,
stand, sit, lift, carry, push, pull, reach, climb, crawl, and
handle. 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(b). An individual’s basic mental or
non-exertional abilities include the ability to understand, carry
out and remember simple instructions, and respond appropriately
to supervision, coworkers and work pressures. 20 C.F.R. §
equals the requirements of a listed impairment,10 (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. Id.
As part of step four the administrative law
judge must determine the claimant’s residual functional capacity.
Residual functional capacity is the individual’s maximum
remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary
work setting on a regular and continuing basis.
Security Ruling 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34475 (July 2, 1996). A
regular and continuing basis contemplates full-time employment and
is defined as eight hours a day, five days per week or other
similar schedule. The residual functional capacity assessment must
include a discussion of the individual’s abilities. Id; 20 C.F.R.
§ 416.945; Hartranft, 181 F.3d at 359 n.1 (“‘Residual functional
capacity’ is defined as that which an individual is still able to
do despite the limitations caused by his or her impairment(s).”).
10. If the claimant has an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or equals a listed impairment, the
claimant is disabled. If the claimant does not have an impairment
or combination of impairments that meets or equals a listed
impairment, the sequential evaluation process proceeds to the
11. If the claimant has the residual functional capacity to do
his or her past relevant work, the claimant is not disabled.
Before we address the administrative law judge’s
decision and the arguments of counsel, we will review some of
Stephens’s medical records.
The medical records do reveal that Stephens suffered
from recurrent neutropenia which is a condition where there is an
abnormally low number of neutrophils, a type of white blood cells,
which fight infections. Tr. 197, 199,201 229 and 234 322 303.
However, no treating of examining physician indicated that this
condition caused Stephens to have mental or physical functional
On August 28, 2006, Stephens had an appointment with
Rajan Mulloth, M.D., her primary care physician, regarding a small
lump in the left armpit. Tr. 233-236.
Stephens also complained of
a flare-up of her allergies and asthma. Id.
Other than a small
cyst in the left armpit (“which looked like being secondary to an
ingrowing hair”), the results of a physical examination on that
date were normal. Tr. 233-234. Stephens had “full joint motion”
and “no deformities” in the extremities. Tr. 234. Her deep tendon
reflexes, sensation, station and gait were normal. Id.
respect to her mental status she was “[o]riented in all spheres”
and her “affect and mood [were] appropriate.” Id.
assessment was that Stephens suffered from (1) a cyst in the left
armpit (because of an ingrowing hair) which was not big enough for
incision and drainage and recommended treatment with an
antibiotic; and (2) chronic mild persistent asthma and seasonal
allergies and continued her on Albuterol and Claritin. Tr. 235.
Dr. Mulloth further counseled Stephens concerning smoking
cessation and engaging in “occasional-moderate” exercise. Id.
record reveals that Stephens smoked between one and two packs of
cigarettes per day. Tr. 168 and 405.
At an appointment with Dr. Mulloth on November 9, 2006,
Stephens reported that she was still smoking, she had no
complaints of depression, she had a good energy level, her
appetite was good, she was sleeping well and her asthma was
stable. Tr. 230.
On November 27, 2006, Stephens reported that she was
smoking one pack a day and unable to quit. Tr. 226.
Mulloth conducted a review of Stephens’s systems12 Stephens
denied, inter alia, the following: fever, chills, sweats,
weakness, malaise, vision loss, blurry vision, chest pain, back
pain, joint pain, joint swelling, muscle cramps, muscle weakness,
stiffness, arthritis, sciatica, restless legs, leg pain at night,
leg pain with exertion, paresthesias,13 seizures, tremors,
12. “The review of systems (or symptoms) is a list of questions,
arranged by organ system, designed to uncover dysfunction and
disease.” A Practical Guide to Clinical Medicine, University of
California, School of Medicine, San Diego, http://meded.ucsd.edu/
clinicalmed/ros.htm (Last accessed February 29, 2012).
13. Paresthesia is a sensation of tingling, prickling, or
numbness of the skin, more generally known as the feeling of pins
and needles. See Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 1232
vertigo, frequent headaches, difficulty walking, depression,
anxiety, memory loss, confusion and cold intolerance. Tr. 227.
The results of a physical examination were essentially normal,
including she had normal deep tendon reflexes, sensation, station
and gait. Tr. 227-228.
Her mood and affect were appropriate. Id.
Dr. Mulloth noted that she had chronic asthma and recommended
smoking cessation. Tr. 229.
On March 20, 2007, Stephens had an appointment with Dr.
Mulloth at which she complained of severe neck pain. Tr. 220. Dr.
Mulloth noted that Stephens “twisted [her] neck while shoveling
Dr. Mulloth further stated in the report of this
appointment that Stephens’s asthma was “under good control” and
that he advised Stephens that her “recent symptoms may also be
related to cigarette use.” Id.
The results of a physical
examination were essentially normal. Id.
neurologically intact; her deep tendon reflexes were normal; she
hand normal sensation, station and gait; she was oriented to
person, place and time; and her affect and mood were appropriate.
Dr. Mulloth’s assessment, inter alia, was that she suffered
from acute neck pain/torticollis14 and prescribed medications;
(27th Ed. 1988).
14. Torticollis is defined as “wryneck; a contracted state of
the cervical muscles, producing twisting of the neck and an
unnatural position of the head.” Dorland’s Illustrated Medical
Dictionary, 1734 (27th Ed. 1988).
stable chronic neutropenia; and stable mild to moderate asthma.
At an appointment with Dr. Mulloth on May 7, 2007,
Stephens complained of a “4 day history of spasms and pain
starting on [right] side of [her] neck and extending down into
[her] back, arm and chest.” Tr. 217.
Stephens was diagnosed with
torticollis, a stiff neck. Tr. 218. Dr. Mulloth prescribed
Skelaxin, a muscle relaxant,15 and the steroid anti-inflammatory
At an appointment with Dr. Mulloth on December 26, 2007,
the results of a physical examination were essentially normal,
including normal station and gait, full joint motion in her
and her affect and mood were appropriate. Tr. 405-
Stephens did have spasms in the trapezius and scalene
muscles on the right side of the neck and rotation range of motion
of the neck was nearly 0 percent. Tr. 406. Stephens had no
She further indicated that her energy
and appetite were good and that she was sleeping well. Tr. 405.
Stephen was still smoking between one and two packs of cigarettes
per day. Id.
A musculoskeletal physical examination of Stephens by
Julio A. Ramos, M.D., of Professional Orthopaedic Associates,
15. Skelaxin, Drugs.com, http://www.drugs.com/skelaxin.html
(Last accessed February 29, 2012).
16. Medrol, Drugs.com, http://www.drugs.com/mtm/medrol.html
(Last accessed February 29, 2012).
Ltd., on February 6, 2008, revealed “no obvious synovitic changes,
range of motion limitation, or effusion” and “[m]ild tenderness of
the cervical and thoracolumbar spine[.]” Tr. 291.
appointment Stephens complained of fatigue and “history of
occasional myoclonic jerks.”17 Tr. 290. Stephens was still smoking
“approximately one pack per day previously approximately two packs
per day since the age of 18.” Id.
Dr. Ramos advised Stephens to
quit smoking and ordered blood tests. Tr. 291.
At a follow-up appointment on February 28, 2008,
Stephens complained of “intermittent shooting pain of her neck and
lower back.” Tr. 402.
Dr. Ramos noted that the results of the
blood work “showed no evidence of inflammatory disease.”18 Id.
Dr. Ramos’s physical examination of Stephens revealed the
following: “[V]ital sign afrebrile [no fever]. Blood pressure
136/80, pulse 70, and respirations 22. [Head, eyes, ears, nose,
17. A myoclonic jerk is an involuntary twitching of a muscle or
muscle group, e.g., hiccups which are caused by involuntary
contractions of the muscles of the diaphragm. Myoclonus,
Definition, Mayo Clinic staff, http://www.mayoclinic.com/
health/myoclonus/DS00754 (Last accessed February 29, 2012).
18. An ANA blood test (anti-nuclear antibody blood test) in
November, 2008, was negative. The ANA antibodies are found in 97
percent of the people who have lupus but a positive ANA test does
not mean that an individual suffers from Lupus. Laboratory Tests
for Lupus, Lupus Foundation of America,http://www.lupus.org/
cleid=2242&zoneid=524 (Last accessed February 29, 2012). The
blood tests ordered by Dr. Ramos – C3 and C4 complement levels,
anticardiolipin antibodies, Smith and RNP and double stranded DNA
antibodies – were to determine if Stephens suffered from lupus.
Id.; see also Diagnosing Lupus, About.com, http://lupus.about.com
/od/diagnosisandtreatments/p/LupusDiagnosis.htm (Last accessed
February 29, 2012).
throat] normal. Neck normal. Chest normal. Heart normal. Abdomen
normal. Musculoskeletal, trace synovitic changes of the MCP joints
2, 3, 4 and 5 bilaterally19
as well as bilateral wrist
No synovitic changes. The rest of the joints are
intact. She does have mild tenderness of the cervical and lumbar
Dr. Ramos stated that Stephens had mild neutropenia,
asked her quit smoking, and in light of the synvotic changes and a
slightly elevated sedimentation rate20 “elected to try empirically
Although Stephens alleged that she had lupus, her
treating physicians never received prior medical records from
California confirming that diagnosis. Tr. 168, 291, 402 and 436.
The treating physicians noted her alleged history of lupus, but
19. Trace synovitic changes refers to a small amount of
inflammation of the membrane surrounding MCP joints. The MCP
(metacarpophalangeal) joints are the knuckles of the hands.
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website the
[s]ed rate, or erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR),
is a blood test that can reveal inflammatory activity
in your body. A sed rate test isn’t a stand-alone
diagnostic tool, but the result of a sed rate test may
help your doctor diagnose or monitor an inflammatory
Sed rate (erythrocyte sedimentation rate), Definition, Mayo
Clinic staff, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sed-rate/MY00343
(Last accessed February 29, 2012)). ).
21. Plaquenil is a drug used to treat malaria. It also is used
to treat symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. Plaquenil,
Drugs.com, http://www.drugs.com/plaquenil.html (Last accessed
February 29, 2012).
consistently assessed that it was stable and/or in remission
throughout the relevant time period.
Tr. 211, 226, 228, 327, 433
On June 10, 2008, Dr. Mulloth noted that Stephens’s
lupus was stable. Tr. 453.
The results of a physical examination
on that date were essentially normal, including full joint range
of motion in the extremities and a normal gait. Tr. 454.
On November 6, 2008, while Stephens was hospitalized for
an acute peritonsillar abscess she was examined by Dr. Ramos. Tr.
435-437. Dr. Ramos in the report of that examination states in
pertinent part as follows: “Ms. Tamara Stephens is a 31-year-old
female whom I have seen in the office several times. She has an
unclear diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus based on a
hematologic workup done out of state. . . I have not yet to obtain
data to suggest that this was the case. . . Through multiple
evaluations, I have not yet found a significant serologic
abnormality with the exception of a persistent elevation of her
sedimentation rate. She was advised of this and was placed on
anti-inflammatories. . . I see no evidence for underlying
connective tissue disease.” Tr. 435-436.
Stephens was discharged
from the hospital on November 7, 2008, and was seen by Anthony C.
Brutico, M.D., at his office in Olyphant, to have the throat
abscess incised and drained. Tr. 441 and 444.
little pus was found when an attempt was made to drain the
Stephens was advised to continue taking the
antibiotic clindamycin. Id.
At a follow-up appointment with Dr.
Brutico on November 12, 2008, Stephens reported that she was doing
much better on just antibiotics. Tr. 445. An examination of her
throat revealed “almost complete resolution of her right
peritonsillar swelling.” Id.
Stephens informed Dr. Brutico of “a
strong history of recurrent tonsillitis going back to childhood.”
Dr. Brutico recommended that she have a tonsillectomy. Id.
There is no indication that Stephens followed through with that
The administrative law judge at step one of the
sequential evaluation process found that Stephens had not engaged
in substantial gainful work activity since December 18, 2007, the
protective filing date of the application. Tr. 11.
At step two of the sequential evaluation process, the
administrative law judge found that Stephens had the following
severe impairments: “neutropenia, systemic lupus erythematosus
(SLE) history, recurrent tonsillitis, obesity, asthma, headaches,
back impairment, and neck impairment.” Tr. 11-13. The
administrative law judge found that Stephens’s mental impairments
were non-severe because they did not cause more than minimal
limitations in the claimant’s ability to perform basic work
activities. Tr. 13.
At step three of the sequential evaluation process the
administrative law judge found that Stephens’s impairments did not
individually or in combination meet or equal a listed impairment.
At step four of the sequential evaluation process the
administrative law judge found that Stephens had no past relevant
work and had the residual functional capacity to perform light
work as defined in the regulations except she “cannot tolerate
concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, or poor
ventilation” and she is “nonexertionally limited to routine
repetitive tasks.” Tr. 14-16. In setting this residual functional
capacity, the administrative law judge relied on the opinions of
Mary Ryczak, M.D., and Dennis C. Gold, Ph.D., a psychologist, both
who reviewed Stephens’s medical records on behalf of the Bureau of
Disability Determination in April, 2008. Tr. 382-400.
concluded that Stephens had the physical exertional abilities to
engage in a limited range of light work consistent with the
administrative law judge’s determination. Tr. 396-399.
found that Stephens had mild restrictions of activities of daily
living, mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and
mild difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or
pace. Tr. 392.
Based on the above residual functional capacity and the
testimony of a vocational expert the administrative law judge at
step five of the sequential evaluation process found that Stephens
could perform unskilled, light work as a janitor, cafeteria
attendant, usher/ticket taker, and inspector, and that there were
a significant number of such jobs in the regional and national
economies. Tr. 17 and 44-47.
The administrative record in this case is 456 pages in
length, primarily consisting of medical and vocational records.
Stephens makes the following arguments: (1) the administrative law
judge should have consulted a medical advisor to assess whether
Stephens’s mental impairments met the requirements of a Listed
impairment; (2) the administrative law judge improperly assessed
Stephens’s credibility; (3) the administrative law judge
improperly considered medical opinions; and (4) the administrative
law judge failed to properly formulate Stephens’s residual
We have thoroughly reviewed the record in this case and
find no merit in Stephens’s arguments. The administrative law
judge did an excellent job of reviewing Stephens’s vocational
history and medical records in his decision. Tr. 9-18.
Furthermore, the brief submitted by the Commissioner thoroughly
reviews the medical and vocational evidence in this case. Doc. 12,
Brief of Defendant.
Because the administrative law judge
adequately reviewed the medical evidence in his decision we will
only comment on a few additional items.
Initially we will note that no treating or examining
physician has indicated that Stephens suffers from physical or
mental functional limitations that would preclude her from
engaging in the limited range of unskilled, light work set by the
administrative law judge in his decision for the requisite
statutory 12 month period.
At step two the administrative law judge found that
Stephens’s mental impairments were non-severe.
That conclusion is
supported by the “Psychiatric Review Technique” form completed by
Dr. Gold, the fact that Stephens was not taking medications for
anxiety or depression, and the unremarkable mental status findings
of her primary care physician, Dr. Mulloth. Tr. 209, 220, 382 and
The administrative law judge relied on the opinions of
Dr. Ryczak, the state agency physician, and Dr. Gold, the state
agency psychologist. The administrative law judge’s reliance on
the opinions Dr. Ryczak and Dr. Gold was appropriate. See Chandler
v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec.,
, 2011 WL 6062067 at *4 (3d
Cir. Dec. 7. 2011)(“Having found that the [state agency
physician’s] report was properly considered by the ALJ, we readily
conclude that the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial
We are satisfied that the administrative law judge
appropriately took into account all of Stephens’s mental and
physical limitations in the residual functional capacity
assessment. The administrative law judge concluded that Stephens
could engage in a limited range of light work.
That conclusion is
supported by the opinion of the state agency physician and the
opinion of the state agency psychologist.
The administrative law judge stated that Stephens’s
statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting
effects of her symptoms were not credible to the extent that they
were inconsistent with the ability to perform a limited range of
unskilled, light work. Tr. 15.
The administrative law judge was
not required to accept Stephens’s claims regarding her physical
limitations. See Van Horn v. Schweiker, 717 F.2d 871, 873 (3d Cir.
1983)(providing that credibility determinations as to a claimant’s
testimony regarding the claimant’s limitations are for the
administrative law judge to make).
It is well-established that
“an [administrative law judge’s] findings based on the credibility
of the applicant are to be accorded great weight and deference,
particularly since [the administrative law judge] is charged with
the duty of observing a witness’s demeanor . . . .”
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 the
Because the administrative law judge
heard Stephens testify, the administrative law judge is the one
best suited to assess the credibility of Stephens.
Our review of the administrative record reveals that the
decision of the Commissioner is supported by substantial evidence.
We will, therefore, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) affirm the
decision of the Commissioner.
An appropriate order will be entered.
S/Richard P. Conaboy
RICHARD P. CONABOY
United States District Judge
Dated: March 2, 2012
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?