United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
THOMAS M. DiGIROLAMO, Magistrate Judge.
Stacey Farrell, Jr. ("Plaintiff"), seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or the "Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 20). Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that he is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 20) is GRANTED, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16) is DENIED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
Plaintiff was born in 1975, has a high-school education, and previously worked as an emergency medical technician ("EMT") and heating/air conditioning service technician. R. at 32, 176, 181, 186. On October 27, 2008, Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability beginning on June 18, 2008, due to herniated discs, nerve damage, and depression. R. at 14, 135-43, 176, 180. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and again on reconsideration; consequently, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). R. at 66-69, 74-86. On February 3, 2011, ALJ Larry Banks held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. R. at 23-65. On March 16, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled since the alleged onset date of disability of June 18, 2008. R. at 11-22. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council and submitted additional evidence. R. at 124-25, 587-94. The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review (R. at 130-34) and issued a decision on August 25, 2011, finding Plaintiff not disabled from his alleged onset date of disability through the date of the ALJ's decision (R. at 1-10). The Appeals Council's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).
On October 20, 2011, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Upon the parties' consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case subsequently was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.
Summary of Evidence
A. John S. Tidball, M.D.
A CT scan of Plaintiff's lumbar and cervical spine on June 28, 2008, was normal. R. at 440-41. An MRI of Plaintiff's lumbar spine on July 9, 2008, revealed no evidence of vertebral compression or acute marrow pathology. R. at 438. The MRI also revealed minimal L4-L5, L5-S1 disc bulging and facet arthropathy without annular tear, disc herniation, or central stenosis. R. at 438. Further, no direct nerve root compression was identified. R. at 438.
Dr. Tidball, Plaintiff's treating family physician, expressed an opinion about Plaintiff's functional limitations on August 28, 2008. R. at 474-75. Regarding Plaintiff's mental limitations, Dr. Tidball opined that Plaintiff had "extreme" restrictions in activities of daily living; "extreme" difficulties in maintaining social functioning; and "constant" difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace. Plaintiff also experienced "continual" episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 475. He diagnosed Plaintiff with generalized anxiety disorder and back pain. R. at 475.
Regarding Plaintiff's physical limitations, Dr. Tidball opined that Plaintiff could only lift and carry fewer than ten pounds and sit for fifteen to twenty minutes and stand for one hour in an eight-hour workday. R. at 474. Dr. Tidball stated that Plaintiff's symptoms "are provoked by prolonged sitting, standing, lying supine." R. at 476. "[L]ifting a gallon of milk, [b]ending, crawling trigger the severe pain. Squatting is briefly tolerable." R. at 476.
On February 25, 2009, in a letter to Plaintiff's workers' compensation attorney (R. at 36, 38, 418), Dr. Tidball noted that Plaintiff was working as an ambulance attendant on June 18, 2008. "While removing a 600 pound patient from an ambulance the patient rolled. To prevent the patient from rolling off or capsizing the stretcher [Plaintiff] quickly reacted and lifted up one side of the stretcher." R. at 418. "He immediately felt low back pain and pain and tingling down both legs into his toes. He subsequently developed pain in his upper neck and head, and this resolved with a left suboccipital nerve block on 7/11/08." R. at 418; see R. at 481. "The persistent back pain and inability to work brought on a depression (severe) which did not respond to Zoloft. Effexor helped somewhat, but with Cymbalta the depression has significantly improved." R. at 418. According to Dr. Tidball, "[t]he dates of [Plaintiff's] temporary total disability are from the date of his accident until the present time and continuing." R. at 418.
B. State Agency Medical Consultants
On February 18, 2009, James W. Nutter, Ed.D., evaluated Plaintiff's mental status. R. at 526-32. Plaintiff neither expressed any feelings of worthlessness nor had attempted suicide. R. at 529. Plaintiff also denied problems with getting along with people or relating to co-workers and supervisors. R. at 529. Plaintiff's ability to understand and follow simple instructions independently was adequate. R. at 529. He further "showed no difficulty with irritability, confrontational attitude, obvious problem with impulse control, apathy, indifference or apparent manipulation." R. at 530. "In reference to mood and affect, [Plaintiff] reports feelings of loss, futility and inadequacy since his injury." R. at 530. He also "described a sense of hopelessness and futility with securing appropriate treatment and/or returning to his prior level of functioning." R. at 530. Dr. Nutter noted that Plaintiff "could compute serial 7's with time and concentration" and "understood 2 or 3 abstractions." R. at 530. Dr. Nutter's initial impression was a mood disorder related to a medical condition. R. at 532.
On March 2, 2009, D. Shapiro, Ph.D., completed a psychiatric review technique form ("PRTF") on which Dr. Shapiro evaluated Plaintiff's mood disorder under paragraph B of Listing 12.04 for affective disorders. R. at 533-46. Dr. Shapiro opined that Plaintiff's mental impairment caused him to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) one or two episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 543. Dr. Shapiro did not find evidence to establish the presence of criteria under paragraph C of Listing 12.04. R. at 544. Dr. Shapiro further found that Plaintiff "has a medically determinable impairment(s), but the conditions do not meet or equal listings." R. at 545. Accordingly, Dr. Shapiro assessed Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity ("RFC") (R. at 547-50) and opined that he was moderately limited in his ability to (1) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (2) perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; (3) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; and to (4) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 547-48.
Dr. Shapiro also found the following:
[Plaintiff] is a 33-[year]-old male with a reported history of anxiety related to learning difficulties in school. He was apparently functioning well until an injury in June 2008 and he is now reporting symptoms of depression related to his pain and physical limitations.
There is no evidence of any significant cognitive limitations. [Plaintiff] reports some difficulties with A/C, which are credible.
[Plaintiff] demonstrates appropriate social behavior and denies a history of significant problems in this area. His ability to adapt at this time is somewhat limited by condition.
R. at 549. On September 22, 2009, another state agency consultant affirmed Dr. Shapiro's assessment. R. at 574.
On January 26, 2009, A. Serpick, M.D., assessed Plaintiff's physical RFC. R. at 513-20. Dr. Serpick opined that Plaintiff could (1) lift and/or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling with the upper and lower extremities. R. at 514. Plaintiff had no postural, manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. R. at 515-17.
On September 16, 2009, W. Hakkarinen, M.D., also assessed Plaintiff's physical RFC. R. at 566-73. Dr. Hakkarinen opined that Plaintiff could (1) lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling with the upper and lower extremities. R. at 567. Further, Plaintiff could occasionally climb and frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. R. at 568. Plaintiff had no manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. R. at 569-70. Finally, Dr. Hakkarinen found that Plaintiff's "allegation of inability to lift over 5 lb [was] not consistent with findings of normal strength. [Plaintiff] can drive and shop, [demonstrating] effective ambulation." R. at 571.
C. Charles A. Sansur, M.D.
Dr. Sansur, a neurosurgeon, noted on June 29, 2010, that X-rays of Plaintiff's lumbar spine "did not demonstrate any abnormal alignment and no evidence of spondylolisthesis." R. at 582. Dr. Sansur "did not see any explanation for this severe pain that [Plaintiff] was in." R. at 582.
On August 3, 2010, Dr. Sansur reviewed MRIs of Plaintiff's thoracic and lumbar spine, noting that "there is good disk hydration in all disks. There is no evidence of any disk herniation." R. at 583. "It is quite likely that L5-S1 is the source of his diskogenic back pain." R. at ...