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Johnson v. Colvin

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

December 11, 2013

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


THOMAS M. DIGIROLAMO, Magistrate Judge.

Kevin Johnson ("Plaintiff" or "Claimant") 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 his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.§§ 1381-83(c). Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Pl.'s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 19) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Def.'s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 21). No hearing is deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

I. Procedural History

Plaintiff protectively filed his application for SSI on April 5, 2007 alleging disability since February 1, 2003 (subsequently amended to April 5, 2007) on the basis of systemic pain pain and an inability to stand for long periods of time. R. at 11, 72-78, 83. His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. R. at 36-38, 46-47. On September 25, 2009, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"). R. at 20-33. In a decision dated November 16, 2009, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's request for benefits. R. at 11-19. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision subject to judicial review. R. at 1-5.

II. ALJ's Decision

The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claim for SSI using the sequential process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. At the first step, the ALJ determined that Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 5, 2007. At step two, the ALJ determined that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: osteoarthritis of the hips; worse on the left; and depression. At step three, the ALJ found that his impairments did not meet or equal the Listings of Impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt, P, app. 1. The ALJ concluded at step four that, given his Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC"), Plaintiff was not capable of performing his past relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that Claimant was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, he concluded that Claimant was not disabled. R. at 11-19.

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)(1994 & Supp. V 1999); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1202 (4th Cir. 1995); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "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, 907 F.2d at 1456 (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). This court cannot try the case de novo or resolve evidentiary conflicts, but rather must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence. Id.

IV. Discussion

Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in (1) analyzing his mental impairments; (2) his assessment of his RFC; and (3) his reliance upon the VE testimony.

A. Mental Impairment

After a lengthy recitation of the regulations governing the evaluation of a mental impairment, Plaintiff makes a boilerplate argument that the ALJ failed to follow the special technique laid out in the regulations and asserts without a single citation to a fact in the record that it is "undisputed that the Plaintiff has a documented mental impairment, which impacts his ability to work." Pl.'s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 19 at 6. To the contrary, the Court finds that the ALJ did not err in his analysis of Plaintiff's mental impairment and that his findings regarding his depression are supported by substantial evidence.

When evaluating the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must follow a special technique which begins with a determination of whether or not claimant has a medically determinable mental impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(a). He then must rate the degree of functional limitation in the following four broad functional areas: activities of daily living, social functioning, concentration, persistence or pace and episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(3). After rating these areas, the ALJ determines the severity of the mental impairment, and if severe, the ALJ will assess whether it meets a listing and if not, proceeds to the RFC analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(4). Here, the ALJ found Claimant's depression was a medically determinable mental impairment that was severe. He then found that Claimant suffered from only mild restrictions in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning, moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace and no episodes of decompensation. R. at 13. The ALJ determined that Claimant's mental condition did not satisfy any Listing. R. at 14.

The ALJ reviewed the consultative psychiatric evaluation completed by Dr. Hussain in November, 2007 in which Dr. Hussain opined Claimant was unable to complete tasks or tolerate work-related stress and demands and assigned him a Global Assessment of Functioning of 45. The ALJ assigned these opinions little weight finding that they were based on a one-time examination and almost entirely based on Claimant's self-reporting. R. at 16. The ALJ noted that Claimant did not allege any mental health impairment at the hearing but instead testified that it was his hip that was his "biggest problem." R. at 28. Significantly, the ALJ noted that the record did not contain any evidence that Claimant was ever treated by a mental health professional. R. at 16. In formulating his RFC, the ALJ, as a precautionary measure, limited Claimant's contact with the ...

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