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Groves v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 6, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner of Social Security.


JILLYN K. SCHULZE, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Cherie Denise Groves brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) final decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits (DIB) under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et. seq. (the Act). Both parties' motions for summary judgment are ready for resolution, see ECF Nos. 14 and 19, and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, Groves' motion for summary judgment is denied and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is granted.

1. Background.

Groves filed an application for DIB on May 8, 2009, R. 44, and supplemental security income (SSI) on May 13, 2010, [1] R. 75-79, with an initial disability onset date of November 1, 1999, R. 75, which was later amended to February 17, 2010. R. 33. Her DIB claim was denied initially on December 18, 2009, R. 341, and upon reconsideration on May 4, 2010. R. 347. Groves then filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and a hearing was held on January 26, 2012. R. 12. ALJ Eugene Bond issued a decision on February 22, 2012, finding that Groves was not disabled under the Act because she retained the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform jobs available in significant numbers in the national economy. R. 19. The Appeals Council subsequently denied Groves's request for review on November 9, 2012, R. 5-8, and the ALJ's decision became the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

2. ALJ's Decision.

The ALJ evaluated Groves' disability claim using the five-step sequential process described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Groves had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of February 17, 2010. R. 14. At step two, the ALJ found that Groves had the following severe medical impairments: depression, anxiety, cervical and lumbar degeneration, hip osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes mellitus. Id. At step three, the ALJ found that Groves did not suffer from an impairment, or combination of impairments, listed in 20 C.F.R Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. R. 15. At step four, the ALJ reviewed the record and determined that Groves possessed the RFC to perform sedentary, unskilled work, with the option to alternate between sitting and standing at will, and limited dominant-hand usage. R. 16. At step five, given Groves' age, high school education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ considered the testimony of the vocational expert (VE) and concluded that Groves is eligible for work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ found that Groves was not disabled as defined under the Act and denied her application for benefits.

3. Standard of Review.

The role of this court on review is to determine if the ALJ applied the correct legal standards in finding Groves not disabled, and if substantial evidence supports that conclusion. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1202 (4th Cir. 1995). Substantial evidence requires "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation and quotation marks omitted). To be substantial, there must be more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence presented. Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). This court may not try the case de novo, and will affirm a decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Id. If conflicting evidence could cause reasonable minds to differ on whether or not the claimant is disabled, it is the ALJ's right and responsibility to make that determination. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)).

4. Discussion.

Groves argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Szkotnicki, [2] because he assigned "little weight" to the opinions without fully considering the factors set out in 20 C.F.R. 404.1527(d).[3] ECF No. 14 at 14; R. 18. However, "[a] formulaic recitation of the factors is not required so long as it is apparent that the ALJ was aware of and considered each one." Carter v. Astrue, No. CBD 11-2980, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116856, *26 (D. Md. Aug. 19, 2013) (citation omitted). Here, while it is true that the ALJ did not explicitly enumerate the relevant factors in assigning Dr. Szkotnicki's opinions "little weight, " the ALJ correctly noted that Dr. Szkotnicki's opinions, R. 328-332, did not rely on, or otherwise reference, any objective medical evidence. R. 18. "[I]f a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001). Regardless, Groves has failed to explain how she was prejudiced by the ALJ's analysis. Any error in failing to explicitly address the § 404.1527 factors was harmless. York v. Astrue, Civ. No. TMD 11-902, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71960, *9-12 (D. Md. May 20, 2013) ("While the ALJ could have been more specific in his findings, the Court finds that his overall discussion in his opinion supports his findings."); Morgan v. Barnhart, 142 Fed.Appx. 716, 722-23 (4th Cir. 2005) ("Even assuming, however, that this opinion is a medical opinion due special weight under the treating-physician rule, any error in failing to credit this opinion was harmless.").

Groves also asserts that the ALJ provided "no discussion of any specific evidence that is inconsistent with Dr. Szkotnicki's opinions." ECF No. 14 at 14-16. She also references an MRI showing a congenital blocked vertebrae at C2-3, R. 115, and her own subjective complaints of back pain on an RFC questionnaire, R. 330, but fails to cite an assessment from Dr. Szkotnicki that analyzes or interprets this evidence. The ALJ stated that he was rejecting Dr. Szkotnicki's opinions because they were unsupported by either objective evidence or treatment notes. (R. 18). This is an adequate basis for the rejection. In addition, the ALJ specifically incorporated this MRI and Groves' testimony in fashioning the RFC, see R. 17 and 115.

Groves next argues that "the ALJ inaccurately and selectively described consultative examiner Dr. Merrion's assessment" with regard to her depression and anxiety. ECF No. 14 at 16. Dr. Merrion, a licensed psychologist, examined Groves on September 8, 2010. R. 220-28. Dr. Merrion found that there could be interruptions in Groves' work day "due to mood swings and/or anxiety, " but that Groves was "a fair candidate for interacting with the public or coworkers" and that she had only "a mildly to moderately impaired ability to deal with the normal stressors and demands encountered in competitive employment." R. 225. Here, again, Groves fails to explain what part of Dr. Merrion's assessment the ALJ improperly analyzed. The ALJ noted the severity of Groves' depression and anxiety and appropriately limited Groves to sedentary, unskilled work to account for these impairments. Hill v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 106 Fed.Appx. 159, 160 (4th Cir. 2004) ("[A]lthough [plaintiff] clearly suffers from back and lung problems, as well as anxiety, substantial evidence supports a finding that these deficiencies do not significantly limit Hill's ability to work a light to sedentary unskilled job."); Seifert v. Comm'r, SSA, Civ. No. SAG 11-1051, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63784, at *3 (D. Md. May 2, 2013) (concluding that the ALJ appropriately determined that plaintiff's mild to moderate mental limitations related to her depression warranted a restriction to sedentary, unskilled work). Groves does not suggest how the ALJ should have fashioned the RFC any differently on account of her depression and anxiety.

Groves also argues that the ALJ failed to specifically identify the limitations associated with her limited dominant-hand usage. ECF No. 14 at 18. The ALJ noted that "in July 2008, an examination showed stiffness and tenderness in the claimant's hands and she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome." R. 17, 152. The ALJ also noted that, in August 2010, Dr. Rashid Khan stated that there were no signs of acute or chronic inflammation in her upper extremities, her grip strength was normal, her muscle strength was a 5/5 and her range of motion was within functional limits. R. 216. The ALJ weighed this conflicting evidence and decided to limit Groves' dominant-hand usage. Groves indicates that the ALJ should have given more weight to the opinion of Ms. Constantine, a certified nurse practitioner working under Dr. Szkotnicki, who determined that Groves could not use her hands for simple grasping, pushing or pulling of controls, or fine manipulation, R. 332, but this lone notation by Ms. Constantine is not supported by any objective medical evidence in the record.

Groves also argues that a detailed, and potentially more restrictive, description of Groves' dominant-hand limitation is necessary because two of the three jobs provided by the VE require frequent reaching and handling and occasional fingering. ECF No. 14 at 18. However, as discussed above, the extreme limitations related to Groves' hand usage are not supported by objective medical evidence. In addition, one of the occupations named by the VE, unarmed security worker, requires no reaching, handling or fingering and there are 37, 000 of these positions nationally and 860 positions locally. R. 39. This pool of positions is more than adequate to support the ALJ's conclusion that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national and local economies that Groves can perform. R. 19; see Hicks v. Califano, 600 F.2d 1048, 1051 n.2 (4th Cir. 1979) ("Claimant contends that the light and sedentary jobs described by the vocational ...

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