United States District Court, D. Maryland
Daniel L. Mack,
Commissioner, Social Security Administration.
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER,
On September 6, 2013, the Plaintiff, Daniel Lee Mack, petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claim for Supplemental Security Income. ECF No. 1. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos. 14, 20. I find that no hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). This Court must uphold the decision of the agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the agency employed proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); see Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny the Plaintiff's motion. This letter explains my rationale.
Mr. Mack filed his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on December 3, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2005. (Tr. 185-88). His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 110-13, 115-17). A hearing was held on January 12, 2012 before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 38-99). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Mack was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 19-31). The Appeals Council denied Mr. Mack's request for review, (Tr. 3-9), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the agency.
The ALJ found that Mr. Mack suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, minimal osteoarthritis of hips and knees, and residuals from scarring on the right hand. (Tr. 24). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Mack retained the residual function capacity ("RFC") to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) with the option to sit and stand except the claimant is limited to occasionally pushing and pulling with right dominant hand and upper extremity. Further, the claimant is limited to occasional fingering, bending, squatting, stooping, kneeling, and climbing ramps and stairs. Finally, the claimant must not climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds.
(Tr. 26). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Mr. Mack could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and that therefore he was not disabled. (Tr. 29).
Mr. Mack raises several arguments on appeal. First, he argues that the ALJ made an erroneous RFC assessment. Second, he takes issue with the ALJ's assignment of weight to the opinion of a consultative examiner. Third, he argues that the ALJ should have deemed several of his alleged mental and physical impairments to be severe. Fourth, he argues that the Appeals Council did not give sufficient consideration to new and material evidence. Fifth, he argues that the ALJ improperly assessed his credibility and subjective complaints. Finally, he contends that the ALJ did not set out all of his limitations in the hypotheticals to the VE. Each argument lacks merit and is addressed sequentially.
Mr. Mack first disagrees with the ALJ's RFC assessment. He argues that, given the limitations that the ALJ determined, he is restricted to sedentary, unskilled work as of his 50th birthday, thus rendering him disabled pursuant to the Medical Vocational Guidelines. Pl.'s Mot.
5. Mr. Mack points to no evidence to support a finding that he is restricted to sedentary, unskilled work. Moreover, the ALJ relied on substantial evidence in determining that Mr. Mack was limited to light work with a sit/stand option. The ALJ noted that the objective medical evidence did not support the disabling symptoms that Mr. Mack alleged. (Tr. 28). Specifically, the ALJ noted that MRI and CT scans demonstrated only mild degenerative disc disease, and on examination, Mr. Mack had full motor strength, full range of motion of the wrists, elbows, shoulders, and spine, and normal gait and ambulation. (Tr. 28); see (Tr. 262, 293-97, 398, 424, 427, 453, 455, 456, 622, 624). Mr. Mack also contends that the sit/stand option in the RFC assessment is inconsistent with light work, because light work requires the claimant to stand and walk during most of the day. Id. at 4. However, the VE testified as to the effect of a sit/stand option on the occupational base of light work. See (Tr. 94-99); Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290-92 (4th Cir. 2002). The VE concluded that the jobs of bakery worker conveyor line and laminating machine tender would be available, but that the numbers of those available jobs would be reduced by 50 percent. (Tr. 94-95). The VE further testified that the job of cleaner-housekeeper would also be compatible with a sit/stand option. Id. at 95.
Mr. Mack next argues that that ALJ did not assign proper weight to the opinion of Dr. Roth, a psychologist who performed a consultative examination of Mr. Mack on March 2, 2010. Pl.'s Mot. 6. The ALJ assigned the opinion "little weight" because Dr. Roth examined Mr. Mack only once, her opinion was largely based on Mr. Mack's subjective complaints, and Dr. Roth noted that Mr. Mack appeared possibly under the influence at the time of her examination. See (Tr. 29). The ALJ also concluded that Dr. Roth's opinion was inconsistent with other medical evidence. Dr. Roth found that Mr. Mack's motor activity "was retarded" and that he tested poor in several areas, including recent memory, remote memory, practical reasoning, social judgment, insight, and hazard recognition. (Tr. 304, 305). Dr. Roth concluded that Mr. Mack was "moderately restricted" in his ability to understand, and that he was unable to understand, remember and follow simple instructions without difficulty. (Tr. 306). Dr. Roth also noted that Mr. Mack would be unpredictable in his interactions with others and would be moderately restricted in his ability to meet normal production standards. (Tr. 307). However, substantial evidence exists to the contrary. As the ALJ noted, a Psychiatric Review Technique performed on April 18, 2010, nearly a month after Dr. Roth's examination, concluded that Mr. Mack suffered from substance abuse addiction disorder, and had only mild restrictions in the functional areas, with no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. See (Tr. 29) (citing Tr. 338-51). A previous medical consultation examination in February 17, 2010 noted that Mr. Mack was "capable of handling funds" and that he "relate[d] well and [had] a normal range of interests." (Tr. 294). While Dr. Roth assessed a low GAF score of 35, it is well established that GAF scores are not determinative of disability. See, e.g., Davis v. Astrue, JKS-09-2545, 2010 WL 5237850, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 15, 2010). Accordingly, I find no error with the ALJ's assignment of weight to Dr. Roth's opinion.
Mr. Mack next argues that the ALJ should have found that he suffered from additional severe mental and physical impairments. Pl.'s Mot. 8. Mr. Mack alleges that the following impairments are severe: seizures/syncopal episodes, chest pain/shortness of breath/palpitations, and leg swelling. Id. at 9. Mr. Mack need only make a threshold showing at Step Two that an "impairment or combination of impairments...significantly limits [his] physical or mental abilities to do basic work activities" for the ALJ to move onto the subsequent steps in the five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c). The claimant bears the burden of proving that his impairment is severe. See Johnson v. Astrue, PWG-10-3139, 2012 WL 203397, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 23, 2012) (citing Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995)). Because Mr. Mack made the threshold showing that other disorders, including his degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, constituted a severe impairment, the ALJ continued with the sequential evaluation and considered all of Mr. Mack's impairments, both severe and non-severe. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. The ALJ considered Mr. Mack's joint pain of the left shoulder and hypertension, and concluded that they caused no more than a minimal impact on his ability to perform work-related activities. (Tr. 25). The ALJ also considered Mr. Mack's substance abuse disorder, but reasoned that only one medical provider reported slurred speech, and that little medical evidence exists demonstrating significant complications as a result of alcohol consumption. Id.
Furthermore, despite Mr. Mack's argument to the contrary, the ALJ also properly applied the special technique in her evaluation of Mr. Mack's alleged somatoform disorder (Listing 12.07). The special technique is set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a; Robbers v. Comm'r of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 582 F.3d 647, 652-54 (6th Cir. 2009); Kohler v. Astrue, 546 F.3d 260, 265-66 (2d Cir. 2008) (citing Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 844 n. 4 (7th Cir. 2007)). The ALJ "must first evaluate [the claimant's] pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings to determine whether [he or she] ha[s] a medically determinable mental impairment(s)." 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(b)(1). The ALJ must "then rate the degree of functional limitation resulting from the impairment(s)" in four broad functional areas. Id. §§ 416.920a(b)(2), 416.920a(c). The ALJ must document the application of the technique in the hearing decision, incorporating pertinent findings and conclusions, and documenting the significant history and functional limitations that were considered. Id. § 416.920(e)(4). Here, the ALJ considered the four functional areas and concluded that Mr. Mack had no more than mild restrictions and no episodes of decompensation. (Tr. 26). The ALJ relied on substantial evidence in her analysis. See id. (citing 210-18, 240-44). Therefore, I find no error with the ALJ's application of the special technique or Step Two findings.
Mr. Mack's fourth argument is that the Appeals Council did not consider new and material evidence that he submitted. Pl.'s Mot. 13-14. The Appeals Council denied review, stating that the additional Walnut Street Community Health Center records pertained to a period after the ALJ's opinion, and thus, they did not affect the disability decision. See (Tr. 4). While the Appeals Council's position was correct, the Appeals Council cited incorrect dates for the records. The Commissioner supplemented the official transcript on April 24, 2014 to reflect the correct dates of the records. ECF No. 18. Even if the Appeals ...