United States District Court, D. Maryland
RICHARD JOHN QUILLEN, Plaintiff.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER, magistrate Judge.
Pursuant to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-captioned case has been referred to me to review the parties' dispositive motions and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 11, 12]. I find that no hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 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); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that the Court grant the Commissioner's motion, deny Mr. Quillen's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Mr. Quillen protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") on September 21, 2010. (Tr. 180, 278-81). Mr. Quillen alleged a disability onset date of May 10, 2010. (Tr. 278). His application was denied initially on April 7, 2011, and on reconsideration on September 23, 2011. (Tr. 197-201, 205-11). An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held hearings on November 6, 2012, April 4, 2013, and August 27, 2013, at which Mr. Quillen was represented by counsel. (Tr. 66-142). Following the hearings, the ALJ determined that Mr. Quillen was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 41-65). The Appeals Council denied Mr. Quillen's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the agency.
The ALJ found that Mr. Quillen suffered from the severe impairments of dilated cardiomyopathy, recurrent atrial fibrillation, obesity, and depression. (Tr. 46). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Quillen retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b), with lifting up to 10 pounds continuously and 50 pounds occasionally, carrying up to 10 pounds continuously, up to 20 pounds frequently, and up to 50 pounds occasionally, sitting two hours at one time or eight hours total in an eight hour workday, standing for three hours at a time or eight hours total in an eight hour workday, and walking for two hours at one time or four hours total in an eight hour workday. The claimant has no limitations in use of his hands or feet or in reaching or pushing/pulling. The claimant could frequently climb ramps and stairs and balance, occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and continuously crouch, crawl, kneel and stoop. The claimant could have occasional exposure to heights, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants as well as temperature extremes, and frequent exposure to machinery. Additionally, the claimant could perform, simple, unskilled work that is not at a production pace, meaning paid by the piece or on an assembly line, work with only occasional contact with coworkers and the general public and work that is essentially isolated, with only occasional supervision. The claimant could perform low stress work, defined as only occasional changes in the work setting and only occasional need to make decisions or use judgment.
(Tr. 49-50). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Mr. Quillen could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and that, therefore, he was not disabled. (Tr. 55-56).
On appeal, Mr. Quillen raises two arguments concerning the ALJ's explanation in support of her RFC assessment: (1) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence of record; and (2) that the ALJ erred in evaluating his credibility. Both arguments lack merit and are addressed below.
Mr. Quillen first argues that the opinions from his treating psychiatrist, Dr. Boschulte,  and his treating therapist, Mr. Collins, were improperly discounted by the ALJ. The Fourth Circuit set forth parameters for evaluating medical opinions of treating physicians in Craig, 76 F.3d at 590, which were later refined by amendments to 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. See Pitman v. Massanari, 141 F.Supp.2d 601, 608 (W.D. N.C. 2001). When a medical opinion is from a "treating source, " it is given controlling weight only if it is "well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). If a treating source's medical opinion is not assigned controlling weight, however, in determining the weight to give the opinion, the ALJ should consider: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and its nature and extent; (2) the supportability of the opinion; (3) the opinion's consistency with the record as a whole; (4) whether the source is a specialist; and (5) any other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
In support of his argument, Mr. Quillen first references the symptoms noted within the opinions. Pl's Mem. 21-22. However, the ALJ did not discount the opinions based on the insufficiency of the explanation set forth therein; rather, the ALJ determined that the opinions (including the explanations) were contradicted by the contemporaneous treatment notes of both sources. (Tr. 54). In support of the ALJ's assignment of weight, he referenced his earlier summary of Dr. Boschulte's and Mr. Collins's treatment notes, which documented numerous reports by Mr. Quillen that his medications were working well with no side effects, and that he was feeling better mentally, doing well, and sleeping better. (Tr. 52). The ALJ's summary also noted statements by Dr. Boschulte that Mr. Quillen was less depressed and that his mood and affect was happy. Id. Finally, the ALJ noted multiple mental status examinations in which Mr. Quillen exhibited normal eye contact and speech and goal directed thought flow. Id.
In support of his argument, Mr. Quillen also references excerpts from Dr. Boschulte's and Mr. Collins's treatment notes that he claims substantiate their opinions. Pl.'s Mem. 22. However, Mr. Quillen's argument essentially asks the Court to re-weigh the medical evidence, which exceeds its authority. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In addition to the instances in Dr. Boschulte's and Mr. Collins's treatment notes documenting improvement in Mr. Quillen's symptoms, the ALJ's summary also noted occasions upon which Dr. Boschulte described Mr. Quillen as depressed and isolated. (Tr. 52). A review of the record indicates that the severity of Mr. Quillen's symptoms, as reflected by Dr. Boschulte's and Mr. Collins's treatment notes, fluctuated. The ALJ's summary thus accurately set forth the gist of those treatment notes-they document both periods of improvement and instances of more severe symptoms. It is apparent from the ALJ's opinion, however, that she ultimately determined that the weight of Dr. Boschulte's and Mr. Collins's treatment notes did not support their opinions. The ALJ's consideration of those opinions was consistent with 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527, and the ALJ provided substantial evidence in support of her determination.
Mr. Quillen also generally takes issue with the ALJ's consideration of his activities of daily living ("ADLs") in discounting Dr. Boschulte's and Mr. Collins's opinions. Mr. Quillen characterizes his ADLs as "sporadic." Pl.'s Mem. 22. However, the ALJ's summary of Mr. Quillen's ADLs reflects activities and responsibilities that greatly exceed the occasional chores and self-care that other courts have found to be not inconsistent with disability. In this case, Mr. Quillen engaged in a variety of social activities, including going to church twice a week, bowling once a week, and fishing, which are indeed inconsistent with Dr. Boschulte's and Mr. Collins's opinions regarding Mr. Quillen's social limitations and isolation. Compare (Tr. 118-19, 359, 377, 1103-06, 1273, 1407), with (Tr. 697, 700, 821, 1442).
Mr. Quillen's argument regarding his GAF scores is likewise unpersuasive. While nothing prohibits an ALJ from considering GAF scores as one component of a full analysis of the evidence of record, it is well established that GAF scores are not determinative of disability. See, e.g., Davis v. Astrue, Case No. JKS-09-2545, 2010 WL 5237850, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 15, 2010); Kozel v. Astrue, No. JKS-10-2180, 2012 WL 2951554, at *10 (D. Md. July 18, 2012). Although the ALJ only mentioned one GAF score assigned to Mr. Quillen, her thorough summary of ...