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Rivera v. Astrue

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

August 22, 2013

MICHAEL J. ASTRUE, [1] Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.


CHARLES B. DAY, Magistrate Judge.

Sandra Lee Rivera, ("Plaintiff") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"), denying Plaintiff's claims for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-434, and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381-1383f. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Plaintiff's Motion") (ECF No. 16) and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Commissioner's Motion") (ECF No. 18). The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and the applicable law. No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby DENIES Plaintiff's Motion, DENIES Commissioner's Motion, and REMANDS this matter to the Social Security Administration for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


Plaintiff filed her applications for DIB on March 16, 2009 and SSI on March 31, 2009 with the original alleged onset date of May 19, 2008. R. 132-45. She alleged disabilities including thoracic outlet syndrome, lumbar disk herniation, and carpal tunnel syndrome. R. 132, 139, 170. Plaintiff later amended her onset date to November 24, 2008, during the hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). R. 41. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claims on first review on June 11, 2009, R. 83-87, and upon reconsideration on January 28, 2010. R. 77-80. The ALJ hearing was held on October 19, 2010 and Plaintiff was represented by a non-lawyer representative, Lawrence Pucci. R. 38. On November 22, 2010, the ALJ issued a written decision concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. R. 15-32.

The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claims using the five-step sequential process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 (2010), and further explained below. At the first step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 24, 2008, the amended alleged onset date. R. 20. At the second step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease and thoracic outlet syndrome status-post surgeries. R. 20. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), and obesity did not qualify as severe impairments. R. 20-21. At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff "does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals" a listing. R. 21. Even though the ALJ did not identify Plaintiff's depression as a severe mental impairment, he did apply the special technique used to evaluate mental impairments. R. 21-23. At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform light work, except that she would need:

simple, routine, unskilled jobs, SVP2 in nature, with low concentration and low memory due to pain and depression, moderately limited in performing activities of daily living, interact socially, and maintain concentration, persistence, and pace, needing one to two step tasks, with no decision making, judgment, or change in work setting, no production pace rate work, little interaction with coworkers though can be around other employees during the work day, however, with occasional conversation and impersonal interaction with coworkers, essentially isolated jobs with occasional supervision, lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 on occasion, can stand for 30 minutes and sit for 30 minutes consistently on an alternate basis, eight hours a day, five days a week, avoiding heights and hazardous machinery, temperature extremes, humidity, stair climbing, no repetitive neck turning jobs, or fine dexterity and manipulation with hands, odors, gases, fumes, dust, and like substances.

R. 23. The ALJ found that Plaintiff is unable to perform any of her past relevant work as a machine operator, warehouse worker, janitor, and flagger. R. 30. At the fifth step, the ALJ determined that considering Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, "there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform, " including mail room clerk (non-governmental) and machine tender. R. 31-32. As a result, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from the alleged onset date of November 24, 2008, through the date of the decision. R. 32.

Plaintiff subsequently requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request on March 8, 2012, making the ALJ's decision final and appealable. R. 1-4.


On appeal, the Court has the power to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the ALJ "with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); s ee also Russell v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 440 F.Appx. 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted) ("It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.").

The Court does not review the evidence presented below de novo, nor does the Court "determine the weight of the evidence" or "substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence." Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. If the ALJ's factual finding, however, "was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law, " then that finding is not binding on the Court. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

A person is deemed legally disabled if she is unable "to do 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." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2010). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a claimant meets this definition:

1) Determine whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If she is doing such activity, she is not disabled.
2) If she is not doing such activity, determine whether she has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If she does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, she is not disabled.
3) If she does have such impairment or combination of impairments, determine whether she has an impairment that "meets or equals one of [the C.F.R.'s] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If she does have such impairment, she is disabled.
4) If she does not, considering her residual functional capacity, determine whether she can do her "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). ...

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