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Hairsine v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 17, 2016



Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge

Pursuant to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-referenced case was referred to me to review the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment 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’ motions, Ms. Hairsine’s reply, and the supplemental submissions filed by both parties. [ECF Nos. 17, 18, 19, 23, 26]. This Court must uphold the Commissioner’s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if proper legal standards were employed. 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). I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that both motions be denied, that the Commissioner’s decision be reversed in part pursuant to sentence four, and that the case be remanded to the Commissioner for further proceedings in accordance with this Report and Recommendations.

Ms. Hairsine applied for Disability Insurance Benefits on July 14, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2010. (Tr. 147-50). Her claim was denied initially on November 2, 2011, and on reconsideration on February 14, 2012. (Tr. 84-87, 91-92). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on January 7, 2014, (Tr. 31-67), and subsequently denied benefits to Ms. Hairsine in a written opinion dated January 23, 2014. (Tr. 17-30). The Appeals Council declined review, (Tr. 1-7), making the ALJ’s decision the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

The ALJ found that Ms. Hairsine suffered from the severe impairments of diabetes, psoriatic arthritis, osteoarthritis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary deficiency (COPD)/asthma. (Tr. 22). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hairsine retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of stairs or ramps; occasional crouching and stooping; no crawling or kneeling; no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights, moving machinery, or irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, or gases.

(Tr. 23). After considering testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Hairsine was capable of performing her past relevant work as a retail clerk. (Tr. 25). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hairsine was not disabled. (Tr. 25-26).

Ms. Hairsine disagrees. She raises several primary arguments in support of her appeal: (1) that the ALJ assigned too little weight to and failed to acknowledge the specialty of her treating rheumatologist, Dr. Dalal; (2) that the ALJ failed to consider evidence from her longitudinal treatment by Dr. Dalal; (3) that the ALJ’s comments at her hearing evidenced bias; (4) that the ALJ did not consider her upper extremity limitations; (5) that the ALJ did not provide substantial evidence to support an adverse credibility determination; and (6) that the ALJ relied upon a faulty hypothetical to the VE. In addition, in her supplemental submission, Ms. Hairsine contends that the ALJ’s decision was deficient under the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in Fox v. Colvin, ___ Fed. App’x ___, 2015 WL 9204287 (4th Cir. Dec. 17, 2015). Although not all of Ms. Hairsine’s contentions are meritorious, remand is appropriate under Fox, and also to permit appropriate analysis of the records and opinions from Dr. Dalal and consideration of Ms. Hairsine’s complaints of difficulty using her upper extremities. In recommending remand for additional explanation, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ’s ultimate conclusion that Ms. Hairsine is not entitled to benefits is correct or incorrect.

Beginning with the Fox issue, in that case, the Fourth Circuit clarified the evidentiary requirements needed to support an ALJ’s finding at step three of the sequential evaluation. Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether a claimant’s impairments meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Listings describe each of the major body system impairments that the Agency “consider[s] to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a).

In Fox, regarding his findings at step three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ stated:

Although the claimant has ‘severe’ impairments, they do not meet the criteria of any listed impairments described in Appendix 1 of the Regulations. (20 CFR, Subpart P, Appendix 1). No treating or examining physician has mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of any listed impairment, nor does the evidence show medical findings that are equivalent to those of any listed impairment of the Listing of Impairments. In reaching this conclusion, the undersigned has considered, in particular, sections 9.00(B)(5) and 11.14.

2015 WL 9204287 at *4. The Fourth Circuit held that the ALJ’s analysis was deficient because it consisted of conclusory statements and did not include “any ‘specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.’” Id. (quoting Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291-92 (4th Cir. 2013)). That is, the ALJ did not apply any findings or medical evidence to the identified disability listings and “offered nothing to reveal why he was making his decision.” Radford, 734 F.3d at 295 (emphasis in original). The Fourth Circuit also rejected the notion that failure to engage in meaningful analysis at step three could constitute harmless error where the evidence of record otherwise demonstrated that the claimant did not meet a listing. 2015 WL 9204287, at *4. Rather, the Fox Court emphasized that it is not this Court’s role to “engage[] in an analysis that the ALJ should have done in the first instance, ” or “to speculate as to how the ALJ applied the law to its findings or to hypothesize the ALJ’s justifications that would perhaps find support in the record.” Id. at *4-*5. The Court noted that it could not conduct a meaningful review “when there is nothing on which to base a review.” Id. at *4.

The ALJ’s opinion in Ms. Hairsine’s case is strikingly similar to that in Fox. The opinion reads:

Particular consideration was given to sections 9.00(B)(5), 1.02, 3.02, 3.03 and 14.09. The State agency physician and psychologist who are skilled and experienced in reviewing records and assessing the impairments and limitation that are documented in those records concluded that the claimant’s impairments did not meet or equal the requirements of any section of Appendix 1. The records that were submitted since the State completed its review do not warrant a different determination at the third step of the evaluation process. No treating or examining physician or psychologist has identified medical signs or findings that meet or medically equal the requirements of Appendix 1. Moreover, I reviewed the records and find that the claimant does not have impairments that meet or equal the requirements of any section of Appendix 1.

(Tr. 22-23). Despite the fact that Ms. Hairsine’s counsel was not arguing that any particular listing was met or equaled, the ALJ believed that ample evidence warranted identification of five separate listings. However, the ALJ then provided no discussion of the criteria of any of those listings. The opinion thus fails to meet Fox’s requirement of a “specific application of the pertinent legal ...

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