LEONARD v. SAUL
ORDER denying 13 Motion for Summary Judgment; granting 15 Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Judge Donetta W. Ambrose on 7/16/21. (cha)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
AMY SUE LEONARD
Commissioner of Social Security
Civil Action 20-849
AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff Amy Sue Leonard (“Leonard”) brought this action for review of the final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for social security
benefits. Leonard contends that she became disabled on October 26, 2016. (R. 16).
She was represented by counsel at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) in April 2019. (R. 33-64). During the hearing both Leonard and a vocational
expert (“VE”) testified. Ultimately, the ALJ denied benefits. Leonard subsequently filed
a Request for Review with the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied the
request and Leonard then filed this appeal. The parties have filed Cross-Motions for
Summary Judgment. See ECF Docket Nos. 13 and 15.
1. Standard of Review
Kilolo Kijakazi became Acting Commissioner of Social Security on July 9, 2021, replacing Andrew Saul.
Judicial review of the Commissioner’s final decisions on disability claims is provided
by statute. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)(7). Section 405(g) permits a district court
to review the transcripts and records on which a determination of the Commissioner is
based, and the court will review the record as a whole. See 5 U.S.C. § 706. When
reviewing a decision, the district court’s role is limited to determining whether the record
contains substantial evidence to support an ALJ’s findings of fact. Burns v. Barnhart,
312 F.3d 113, 118 (3d Cir. 2002). Substantial evidence has been defined as “more than
a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate.” Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Determining whether substantial evidence exists is
“not merely a quantitative exercise.” Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178, 183 (3d Cir.
1986) (citing Kent v. Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “A single piece of
evidence will not satisfy the substantiality test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve,
a conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence substantial if it is
overwhelmed by other evidence – particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that
offered by treating physicians).” Id. The Commissioner’s findings of fact, if supported by
substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. §405(g); Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606
F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir. 1979); Richardson, 402 U.S. at 390, 91 S. Ct. 1420.
A district court cannot conduct a de novo review of the Commissioner’s decision, or
re-weigh the evidence; the court can only judge the propriety of the decision with
reference to the grounds invoked by the Commissioner when the decision was
rendered. Palmer v. Apfel, 995 F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998); S.E.C. v. Chenery
Corp., 332 U.S. 194, 196-7, 67 S.Ct. 1575, 91 L.Ed. 1995 (1947). Otherwise stated, “I
may not weigh the evidence or substitute my own conclusion for that of the ALJ. I must
defer to the ALJ’s evaluation of evidence, assessment of the credibility of witnesses,
and reconciliation of conflicting expert opinions. If the ALJ’s findings of fact are
supported by substantial evidence, I am bound by those findings, even if I would have
decided the factual inquiry differently.” Brunson v. Astrue, 2011 WL 2036692, 2011 U.S.
Dist. LEXIS 55457 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 14, 2011) (citations omitted).
2. The ALJ’s Decision
At step one, the ALJ determined that Leonard had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date other than in the second quarter of 2017. (R.
19). At step two, the ALJ found that Leonard suffered from the following severe
impairments: migraine headaches / hemiplegic, cervical dystonia, generalized anxiety
disorder (“GAD”), depressive disorder, schizoaffective disorder – depressive type,
adjustment disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). (R. 19). Turning to the
third step, the ALJ concluded that those impairments, considered singly or in
combination, did not meet or medically equal the severity of a listed impairment. (R. 1921). The ALJ then found that Leonard had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform medium work with certain restrictions. (R. 21-25). At the fourth step the ALJ
concluded that Leonard was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. (R. 2526). Ultimately, at the fifth step of the analysis, the ALJ determined that Leonard was
capable of performing work in jobs existing in significant numbers in the national
economy. (R. 26-27). Consequently, the ALJ denied benefits.
(A) Medical Opinion Evidence
Leonard takes issue with the ALJ’s consideration of the findings tendered by her
treating physician, Dr. Brinkley. She contends, for instance, that Dr. Brinkley’s opinion
should have been accorded greater weight because he was a treating source.
Leonard’s argument is misplaced. She relies upon cases citing to regulations that no
longer govern. For claims filed on or after March 27, 2017, such as Leonard’s,
regulations governing the types of opinions considered and the approach to evaluation
of opinions by ALJs were amended and the treating physician rule was eliminated. 20
C.F.R. §§404.1520c; 416.920c. Under the new broadened regulations, an ALJ “will not
defer or give any specific evidentiary weight, including controlling weight, to any medical
opinion(s) or prior administrative medical findings(s), including those from [a] medical
source.” Id. at §§404.1520c(a); 416.920c(a). For such claims, an ALJ now is required
to articulate how persuasive he/she finds the medical opinions and prior administrative
findings. Id. at §§404.1520c(b); 416.920c(b). In so doing, the ALJ shall consider the
following factors: (1) supportability; (2) consistency; (3) relationship with the claimant;
(4) specialization; and (5) other factors such as familiarity with other evidence in the
claim or an understanding of disability policies and evidentiary requirements, as well as
whether new evidence received after the opinion makes the opinion more or less
persuasive. Id. at §§404.1520c(c); 416.920c(c). “The most important factors” are
supportability2 and consistency.3 Id. at §§404.1520c(a); 416.920c(a). Therefore, the
With regard to supportability, the regulations provides: “[t]he more relevant the objective medical
evidence and supporting explanations presented by a medical source are to support her or her medical
opinion(s) or prior administrative medical finding(s), the more persuasive the medical opinions or prior
administrative medical finding(s) will be.” Id. at §§404.1520c(c)(1); 416.920c(c)(1).
With regard to consistency, the regulations provide: “The more consistent a medical opinion(s) or prior
administrative medical finding(s) is with the evidence from other medical sources and nonmedical sources
in the claim, the more persuasive the medical opinion(s) or prior administrative medical finding(s) will
be.” Id. at §§404.1520c(c)(2); 416.920c(c)(2).
ALJ must explain how he/she considered the supportability and consistency of an
opinion but the ALJ is not required to discuss or explain how he/she considered the
other factors. Id. at §§404.1520c(b)(2); 416.920c(b)(2). When opinions are equally
supported and consistent with the record on the same issue but not exactly the same,
however, the ALJ must explain how he/she considered the other factors. Id. at
§§404.1520c(b)(3); 416.920c(b)(3). Additionally, when a medical source provides
multiple opinions, an ALJ is not required to articulate how he/she considered each
opinion but may consider it in one single analysis using the factors above. Id. at
§§404.1520c(b)(1); 416.920c(b)(1). Moreover, an ALJ is not required to articulate how
he/she considered evidence from nonmedical sources. Id. at §§404.1520c(d);
Simply stated, Leonard has not articulated how the ALJ failed to satisfy these
new standards. After careful review, I find that the ALJ appropriately assessed the
medical opinions in general, and Dr. Brinkley’s medical opinion in particular, in light of
these standards. Specifically, the ALJ explained that Dr. Brinkley’s opinion was
inconsistent with his own treatment notes which indicated that Leonard was doing better
on Risperdal and that her orientation and memory were intact. (R. 24).4 The ALJ also
noted that Dr. Brinkley’s opinion was inconsistent with Dr. Schwartz’s opinion and that
Dr. Brinkley lacked “program knowledge.” (R. 24). I also reject Leonard’s suggestion
that, having recognized schizoaffective disorder as a “severe impairment” at the second
step of the analysis based upon Dr. Brinkley’s opinion, the ALJ erred in discounting this
It should be noted that Dr. Brinkley remarked that Leonard was using Klonopin “excessively” and in
contravention of the prescriptions. (R. 606). Dr. Brinkley advised Leonard that such overuse “may be
increasing her anxiety….” (R. 606).
opinion at later stages of the analysis. The evaluation at the second step of the analysis
is a “de minimus screening device to dispose of groundless claims.” McCrea v. Comm’r.
of Soc. Sec., 370 F.3d 357, 360 (3d Cir. 2004). Moreover, contrary to Leonard’s
assertions, the ALJ did consider the fact that Dr. Schwartz had a limited record available
for review. (R. 25). The ALJ also noted that Dr. Schwartz’s opinion5 was consistent with
both the record and with the opinion proffered by Dr. Singh. (R. 25). In short, I find that
the ALJ complied with the new regulations regarding the evaluation of medical opinion
evidence and that his conclusions are supported by substantial evidence of record.
Further, to the extent that Leonard’s challenges to the ALJ’s findings regarding her
residual functional capacity were founded upon the alleged errors regarding the
assessment of these medical opinions, those challenges lack merit.
(B) Subjective Complaints of Pain
Leonard also faults the ALJ for failing to give appropriate weight to her
complaints of pain. An ALJ must follow a two-step process when assessing pain: first,
he must determine whether there is a medical impairment that could reasonably be
expected to produce the claimant’s pain or other symptoms; and, second, he must
evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the claimant’s symptoms to
determine the extent to which they limit the claimant’s functioning. Pain alone does not
establish disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a). Allegations of pain must be
consistent with objective medical evidence and the ALJ must explain the reasons for
rejecting non-medical testimony. Burnett v. Comm’r. of Soc. Sec., 220 F.3d 112, 121
Leonard took issue with the ALJ’s failure to include Dr. Schwartz’s restrictions regarding “marked
limitations” in dealing with the public when formulating hypotheticals posed to the vocational expert. Even
assuming, for the sake of argument only, that the ALJ erred in this regard, such error was harmless given
that the vocational expert identified two jobs that did not require contact with the public. (R. 55).
(3d Cir. 2000). In evaluating a claimant’s statements regarding pain, the ALJ will
consider evidence from treating, examining, and consulting physicians; observations
from agency employees; and other factors such as the claimant’s daily activities;
descriptions of the pain; precipitating and aggravating factors; type, dosage,
effectiveness, and side effects of medications; treatment other than medication; and
other measures used to relieve the pain. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 416.929. I must defer
to the ALJ’s determinations unless they are not supported by substantial evidence.
Smith v. Califano, 637 F.2d 968, 972 (3d Cir. 1981); Baerga v. Richardson, 500 F.2d
309, 312 (3d Cir. 1974), cert. denied, 420 U.S. 031, 95 S.Ct. 1133 (1975).
Here, the ALJ specifically stated that he considered “all symptoms and the extent
to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective
medical evidence and other evidence, based on the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1529
and SSR 16-3p.” (R. 21) Moreover, the ALJ followed the proper method in assessing
Leonard’s symptoms and pain. That is, he first determined whether there was an
underlying medically determinable physical or mental impairment that could reasonably
be expected to produce Leonard’s pain or other symptoms, then the ALJ evaluated the
intensity, persistence and limiting effects of those symptoms. (R. 21-25) The ALJ
comprehensively detailed Leonard’s medical history. He properly compared the medical
evidence and other evidence of record, including activities of daily living, the intensity of
pain, factors that precipitate and aggravate the symptoms, the effectiveness of
medication, and treatment other than medication, and found them not to be entirely
consistent.6 He referenced her limited and conservative treatment with medication for
Leonard alleges that the ALJ ignored the reported side effects of her medicine. But Leonard herself
denied any such side effects in function reports, other than “sleepiness” in reference to temazepam –
her migraine headaches / hemiplegic and cervical dystonia. (R. 23) He detailed
Leonard’s outpatient therapy with medication and generally normal mental status
examinations with respect to her GAD, depressive disorder, schizoaffective disorder –
depressive type, adjustment disorder and PTSD. (R. 23) There can be no suggestion
that he ignored or discounted Leonard’s complaints of pain. In short, I find that the ALJ’s
findings are supported by substantial evidence of record.
In short, I find that the ALJ’s findings regarding the assessment of medical
opinions, Leonard’s subjective complaints of pain, and the formulation of the RFC are
supported by substantial evidence of record. Consequently, there is no basis for
which is taken for insomnia. (R. 334, 336). Significantly, she does not report any side effects with respect
to the medications Dr. Brinkley prescribed her.
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
AMY SUE LEONARD
Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
Civil Action No. 20-849
AMBROSE, Senior District Judge.
ORDER OF COURT
Therefore, this 16th day of July, 2021, it is hereby ORDERED that the Motion for
Summary Judgment (Docket No. 13) is DENIED and the Motion for Summary Judgment
(Docket No. 15) is GRANTED. The Clerk of Courts shall mark this case “Closed”
BY THE COURT:
Donetta W. Ambrose
United States Senior District Judge
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