415 F.Supp.3d 579 (E.D.Pa. 2019), C. A. 17-4713, Duffy v. Saul

Docket Nº:Civil Action No. 17-4713
Citation:415 F.Supp.3d 579
Opinion Judge:CYNTHIA M. RUFE, J.
Party Name:Thomas Christopher DUFFY, Plaintiff, v. Andrew SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,[*] Defendant.
Attorney:Judith A. Dexter, Bethlehem, PA, for Plaintiff. Andrew C. Lynch, Roxanne Andrews, Social Security Admin, Office Of The General Counsel, Philadelphia, PA, for Defendant.
Case Date:December 03, 2019
Court:United States District Courts, 3th Circuit, Western District of Pennsylvania

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415 F.Supp.3d 579 (E.D.Pa. 2019)

Thomas Christopher DUFFY, Plaintiff,


Andrew SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,[*] Defendant.

Civil Action No. 17-4713

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 3, 2019

Page 580

Judith A. Dexter, Bethlehem, PA, for Plaintiff.

Andrew C. Lynch, Roxanne Andrews, Social Security Admin, Office Of The General Counsel, Philadelphia, PA, for Defendant.



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Plaintiff Thomas Christopher Duffy filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), requesting judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administrator that denied his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act. The Court referred the case to United States Magistrate Judge Jacob P. Hart, who has issued a Report and Recommendation ("R & R") that Plaintiff’s request for review should be granted and the case remanded.1 The Commissioner has filed objections to the R & R,2 to which Plaintiff has responded.3 For the reasons discussed below, the objections will be overruled and the R & R will be adopted.


On January 23, 2014, Duffy filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits4 asserting a disability on the basis of bipolar disorder.5 After an initial denial, he sought a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ").6 The ALJ denied benefits, concluding that Duffy "was not under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, at any time from July 1, 2012, the alleged onset date, through March 30, 2016, the date last insured."7 This decision was based on the ALJ’s finding that Duffy had the "residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels" with several specified "nonexertional limitations."8 The Appeals Council denied Duffy’s request for review, permitting the ALJ’s decision to stand as the final decision of the Commissioner.9 Duffy then filed this action.

In determining Duffy’s residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ relied on the medical opinions in the record, as the regulations require.10 The record contains medical opinion evidence concerning Duffy’s mental condition from four doctors— two treating physicians, a one-time examining physician, and a non-examining agency medical expert.

Dr. John Mitchell was Duffy’s psychiatrist for over 14 years. Dr. Mitchell completed a Medical Source Statement on December 18, 2015, in which he indicated that Duffy had a poor ability to maintain concentration and attention for extended periods,

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perform activities within a schedule, sustain an ordinary routine without special supervision, perform at a consistent pace, or complete a normal workday or workweek.[11] Dr. Mitchell also explained that Duffy had a poor ability to interact appropriately with the public, respond appropriately to changes in the work setting, or set realistic goals or make plans independently of others.12

In a letter dated January 4, 2016, Dr. Mitchell wrote that Duffy’s "ability to function outside of the home is severely limited and compromised" and that Duffy’s functioning would collapse if placed in a job setting.[13] Dr. Mitchell further explained that Duffy "is devoutly religious but becomes obsessed with religious rituals dominating his wakeful hours" and that Duffy’s "concentration and problem solving abilities have been severely compromised by his condition and the medications he needs to take."14 According to Dr. Mitchell, Duffy referred to "clickies" in his mind which were indicative of his "psychotic thought process."15 Dr. Mitchell concluded that "[i]t is my medical opinion that Mr. Duffy is totally disabled."16

The R & R compared Dr. Mitchell’s medical opinions to his treatment records— which were added to the file on March 17, 201417 — and determined that "Dr. Mitchell’s opinions were also supported to some extent by his treatment notes, which reflect a religious preoccupation," frequently describe him as "anxious," and, "[o]ften, Dr. Mitchell found [Duffy’s] thought process or content to be abnormal, with preoccupations, compulsions and/or obsessions.[18] At the same time, the R & R explained that there was some inconsistent evidence in Dr. Mitchell’s treatment notes including that "Dr. Mitchell almost invariably described Duffy as fully oriented, calm, cooperative and well-kempt, with normal speech form and content."[19]

Dr. Edward Lundeen, a treating clinical psychologist who provided couples counseling to Duffy and his wife, wrote that he could not provide treatment notes because he had not obtained "the consent of both parties" but in a Medical Source Statement indicated that Duffy was markedly limited in his ability to understand or carry out complex instructions, and in the ability to make judgments on complex work-related decisions.20 Dr. Lundeen further determined that Duffy "[c]an’t sustain concentration at work. Understands work to be

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done but intrusive thoughts invade working space."21

On the other hand, Dr. Gregory Coleman, a psychologist who met with Duffy for a one-time consultative examination on March 11, 2014, concluded that "[t]he results of the examination appear to be consistent with psychiatric problems, but in itself does not appear significant enough to interfere with the claimant’s ability to function on a daily basis."22 Similarly, Dr. Erin Urbanowicz, a psychologist who did not examine Duffy but reviewed certain medical records for the agency and assessed Duffy’s mental RFC, wrote that Duffy could "meet the basic mental demands of competitive work" because "[t]he claimant can perform simple, routine, repetitive work in a stable environment. The claimant can understand, retain, and follow simple job instructions, i.e., perform one and two-step tasks."23

Dr. Urbanowicz’s assessment was included in the Disability Determination Explanation that she, along with Disability Examiner Judith Deluca, prepared. The Disability Determination Explanation contained a number of sections including Evidence of Record, Findings of Fact, Weighing of Opinion Evidence, Physical RFC,24 Mental RFC,25 and Signatures, which showed that the report was signed by Dr. Urbanowicz on March 18, 2014, and by Deluca on June 17, 2014.26

The ALJ’s determination of Duffy’s residual functional capacity rested on the significant weight she placed on the medical opinions of Drs. Coleman and Urbanowicz.27 The ALJ gave only "some weight" to Dr. Lundeen’s opinion "due to the lack of supporting documentation" and "little weight" to Dr. Mitchell’s opinion.28

Plaintiff sought review of the ALJ’s conclusions, contending in relevant part that the ALJ erred in weighing more heavily the opinion evidence from Drs. Coleman and Urbanowicz than evidence from his treating practitioner, Dr. Mitchell. The R & R determined that because "Dr. Urbanowicz almost certainly did not see Dr. Mitchell’s treatment notes, which were submitted only one day before she issued her analysis of the record ... it is not entirely clear whether the ALJ’s decision not to credit the findings of [Dr. Mitchell] was supported by substantial evidence."29 Therefore, the R & R recommended that the case "be remanded to the agency to

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permit an agency expert to issue a new analysis after reviewing the medical record as a whole, including Dr. Mitchell’s treatment records."30 The Commissioner now objects to the R & R on the grounds that: 1) the ALJ reviewed the medical record as a whole, including Dr. Mitchell’s treatment records; 2) the ALJ properly weighed those medical opinions; and 3) Dr. Urbanowicz did review all materials, including the Dr. Mitchell’s records.


A district court reviews those sections of the R & R to which objections have been filed de novo, and may "accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations" of the magistrate judge.31 Although the review is de novo, the court is permitted by statute to rely on the magistrate judge’s proposed recommendation to the extent the court, in its exercise of sound discretion, deems proper.32

This Court’s review of the denial of disability benefits is limited to determining whether the denial is supported by substantial evidence.33 Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion."34 This standard is "less than a preponderance of the evidence but more than a mere scintilla."35 As such, if the ALJ’s factual findings are based on the correct legal standards and supported by substantial evidence, a reviewing court is bound by them, "even if [the court] would have decided the factual inquiry differently."36


"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.’ "37 This is because "a treating physician can "provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the claimant’s] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from [other sources]."38

Accordingly, an ALJ "is not free to employ her own expertise against that of a physician who presents competent medical evidence."39 However, when the record contains conflicting medical evidence, "the ALJ may choose whom to credit but ‘cannot reject evidence for no

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reason or for the wrong reason.’ "40 Therefore, "[w]hile contradictory medical evidence is required for an ALJ to reject a treating physicians opinion outright, such an opinion may be affordedmore or less weight...

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