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Butler v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

November 19, 2013

EMMA BUTLER
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JILLYN K. SCHULZE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Emma Butler brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final administrative decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (Commissioner) denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income Benefits (SSI) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 41 U.S.C.§§ 216 and 223. Both parties' motions for summary judgment and Butler's alternative motion for remand (ECF Nos. 14, 15) are ready for resolution and no hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, Butler's motions for summary judgment and remand will be denied and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment will be granted.

I. Background.

Butler applied for SSI, alleging onset of her disability on February 3, 2009. Her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing on March 15, 2011, at which Butler was represented by counsel. (R. 43). On March 22, 2011, the ALJ found that Butler was not disabled within the meaning of the Act, (R. 22-38), and the Appeals Council denied her request for review. (R. 1-3). Thus, the ALJ's determination became the Commissioner's final decision.

II. ALJ's Decision.

The ALJ evaluated Butler's claim using the five-step sequential process set forth at 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a). First, the ALJ determined that Butler has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date. (R. 24). At step two, the ALJ concluded that Butler suffers from two severe impairments: depressive disorder and borderline intellectual functioning. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Butler does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal any of the listed impairments at 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 25). The ALJ found that Butler has the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) to perform work at all exertional levels, but is nonexertionally limited in that she can only understand, remember, and execute simple instructions, and can maintain only occasional interaction with the general public. (R. 26). At step four, the ALJ found that Butler has no past relevant work. (R. 36). At step five, the ALJ found, based on testimony from a vocational expert (VE), that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Butler can perform. (R. 37). As a result, the ALJ determined that she was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (R. 38).

III. Standard of Review.

The role of this court on review is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1202 (4th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence is defined as "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)). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence presented. Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). It is such evidence that a reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion, and must be sufficient to justify a refusal to direct a verdict if the case were before a jury. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). This court cannot try the case de novo or resolve evidentiary conflicts, but rather must affirm a decision when it is supported by substantial evidence. Id.

IV. Discussion.

Butler raises two broad issues on appeal. The first is that the ALJ failed to follow the proper procedure for analyzing Butler's mental impairments. Butler's second claim is that the ALJ erroneously assessed her RFC.

A. The ALJ Followed the Proper Procedure for Analyzing Butler's Mental Impairments.

Despite the ALJ's finding that she had severe mental impairments of depression and borderline intellectual functioning, Butler claims the ALJ failed to follow the required special technique to substantiate the presence of these impairments and the functional limitations they posed. Specifically, Butler claims that the ALJ: (1) failed to evaluate Butler's pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings to determine whether she had a medically determinable impairment; and (2) failed to specify the symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings that substantiated the presence of the impairment.

The proper procedure to evaluate a mental impairment, known as the "special technique, "[1] examines a claimant's pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings[2] to determine whether she has a medically determinable mental impairment or impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)(1) and 416.920a(b)(1). The ALJ then rates the claimant's degree of limitation in activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, pace and persistence, as either none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme, and also rates episodes of decompensation as either none, one or two, three, four or more.[3] 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(4) and 416.920a(c)(4). The ALJ must then use these ratings to determine if the impairment meets, or is equivalent to, a listed mental disorder.[4] 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d)(2) and 416.920a(d)(2). If the ALJ finds that the claimant has a severe mental impairment that neither meets nor is equivalent in severity to any listing, the ALJ will then assess the claimant's RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(d)(3) and 416.920a(d)(3). The ALJ's decision must include a specific finding as to the degree of limitation in each of the functional areas described in §§ 404.1520a(c) and 416.920a(c). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(e)(4) and 416.920a(e)(4).

The ALJ only has to document use of the "special technique." Davis v. Astrue, CIV. JKS 09-2545, 2010 WL 5237850, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 16, 2010) (citing Burke v. Astrue, 306 F.Appx. 312, 315 (7th Cir. 2009). In Felton-Miller v. Astrue, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the ALJ properly followed the special technique where he: (1) concluded, without discussion, that the claimant's depressive disorder was a severe impairment at step 2; (2) rated the claimant's limitations in the four functional areas at step 3; and (3) discussed the medical evidence pertaining to the claimant's depression when assessing her mental RFC. 459 F.Appx. 226, 231 (4th Cir. 2011). In Burke, the Court found that the ALJ properly performed the special technique by rating the claimant in the four functional areas and providing a finding as to the degree of limitation in each area. 306 F.Appx. at 315. As long as the reviewing court can discern "what the ALJ did and why he did it, " the duty of explanation is satisfied; ...


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