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Re: Shawn Michael Napier v. Michael J. Astrue

May 1, 2013

RE: SHAWN MICHAEL NAPIER
v.
MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION;



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Timothy J. Sullivan United States Magistrate Judge

CHAMBERS OF TIMOTHY J. SULLIVAN UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE 101 WEST LOMBARD STREET BALTIMORE, MARYLAND 21201 (410) 962-4560 Fax (410) 962-3630

LETTER TO COUNSEL:

Dear Counsel:

This matter is before me by the parties' consent. (ECF Nos. 3, 7). On April 11, 2012, Plaintiff Shawn Michael Napier ("Mr. Napier") petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). (ECF No. 1). I have considered Mr. Napier's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15). I find that no hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6. This Court must uphold the decision of the agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the agency employed the proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). For the reasons that follow, I will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny the Plaintiff's motion. This letter explains my rationale.

Mr. Napier applied for SSI on September 10, 2008, alleging disability commencing March 18, 2008. (Tr. 179-185). Mr. Napier's claims were denied initially on December 15, 2008, and upon reconsideration on April 14, 2009. (Tr. 68, 69). A hearing was held on March 9, 2011 before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 25-66). Following the hearing, on June 24, 2011, the ALJ determined that Mr. Napier was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 10-24). On February 13, 2012, the Appeals Council denied Mr. Napier's request for further review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 1-3). The ALJ's decision dated June 24, 2011 constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

The ALJ evaluated Mr. Napier's claim for benefits using the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Napier was not engaged in substantial gainful activity, and had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 10, 2008, when he applied for SSI. (Tr. 15). At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Napier suffered from the severe impairments of "hernia status post successful surgical repair," obesity, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse (alcohol and marijuana) in recent remission. (Tr. 15). The ALJ also found that Mr. Napier suffered from several non-severe impairments, including elevated liver enzymes, and occasional pain from stab wounds to the head, arm and side that he suffered in 2006. (Tr. 15). At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Napier's impairments, separately and in combination, failed to meet or equal in severity any listed impairment. (Tr. 15-16).

The ALJ then determined that, despite Mr. Napier's severe impairments, he retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to: Perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except that he is further limited to: carrying out simple tasks in 2-hour increments (which can be accommodated by regularly scheduled breaks); having occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public; and adapting to simple changes in a routine work setting.

(Tr. 16).

At step four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Napier is unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. 19). At step five, however, the ALJ determined that considering Mr. Napier's "age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers that [he] can perform." (Tr. 124). As a result of this determination, the ALJ found that Mr. Napier was not disabled during the relevant time frame.

Mr. Napier presents several arguments on appeal. First, Mr. Napier contends that the ALJ failed to properly weigh and assess opinion evidence provided by treating physicians and other "treating health care providers." (ECF No. 14-1 at 3). Second, Mr. Napier argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate his credibility. (ECF No. 14-1 at 5). Third, Mr. Napier argues that the ALJ did not "sufficiently analyze" his mental impairments. (ECF No. 14-1 at 6). Fourth, Mr. Napier argues that the ALJ's evaluation of his activities of daily living was improper. (ECF No. 14-1 at 10). Mr. Napier's fifth argument is that the ALJ's hypothetical questions to a vocational expert were improper, because they did not properly set forth all of Mr. Napier's limitations. (ECF No. 14-1 at 10). I will address each of these arguments in turn.

First, Mr. Napier argues that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinions of his treating physicians and the opinions of other treating sources. The opinion of a treating physician is entitled to controlling weight when two conditions are met: 1) it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical laboratory diagnostic techniques and 2) it is consistent with other substantial evidence in the record. See Craig, 76 F.3d at 590; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). *fn1 Federal regulations require an ALJ to assess a number of factors when considering what weight to assign to the medical opinions presented. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c). While treating source opinions on issues reserved to the Commissioner, such as determining a claimant's RFC, are not entitled to controlling weight, the ALJ must still evaluate all of the evidence in the case record to determine the extent to which the physician's opinion is supported by the record as a whole. Id. These factors include: (1) the examining relationship between the physician and the claimant; (2) the treatment relationship between the physician and the claimant; (3) the extent to which a medical opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) the consistency of a medical opinion with the record as a whole; and, (5) whether the physician's opinion relates to an area in which they are a specialist. Id.

While the ALJ must generally give more weight to a treating physician's opinion, see 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c), where a treating physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight. Craig, 76 F.3d at 590; 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). Specifically, an ALJ may attribute little weight to a treating source opinion when it is unsupported, inconsistent with other evidence in the record, or based on a short term treating relationship. Id.; see also Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992) ("The ALJ may choose to give less weight to the testimony of a treating physician if there is persuasive contrary evidence[.]") The ALJ is also not required to give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion on the ultimate issue of disability. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d); SSR 96--5p, 1996 WL 374183. Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(e)(2)(ii), the ALJ is required to "explain in the decision the weight given to . . . any opinions from treating sources, nonteaching sources, and other non-examining sources who do not work for [the Social Security Administration]."

In addition to the opinions of "acceptable medical sources," see 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(a) (defining "acceptable medical sources"), an ALJ is also required to consider opinions from "other sources," such as nurse-practitioners, physicians' assistants, and therapists. 20 C.F.R. § 416.913(d). These opinions, however, are not to be afforded controlling weight, and should be evaluated in consideration of a number of factors:

How long the source has known and how frequently the source has seen the individual; How consistent the opinion is with other evidence; The degree to which the source presents relevant evidence to support an opinion; How well the source explains the opinion; Whether the source has a specialty or area of expertise related to the ...


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