United States District Court, D. Maryland
WILLIAM CONNELLY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Plaintiff Daniel Ledbetter (“Mr. Ledbetter” or “Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. The parties consented to a referral to a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings and final disposition. See ECF Nos. 4, 6. Pending and ready for resolution are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 11). No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted and Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.
On June 15, 2011 Mr. Ledbetter protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI alleging a disability onset date of August 25, 2010 due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), affective disorder, anxiety related disorder and disorder of the back and shoulders. R. at 15. Mr. Ledbetter’s applications were denied initially on November 15, 2011. R. at 59-79. On December 27, 2011 Mr. Ledbetter requested reconsideration. R. at 111-12. On May 21, 2012 the applications were denied again. R. at 113-18. On July 23, 2012 Mr. Ledbetter requested a hearing by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 127-28. On October 1, 2013 an ALJ convened a hearing. R. at 33-55. Mr. Ledbetter was represented by counsel. With the advice and consent of his counsel, Mr. Ledbetter amended his alleged onset date of disability to July 15, 2011, his 50th birthday. R. at 37-38. During the hearing the ALJ obtained testimony from Mr. Ledbetter and a vocational expert (“VE”). In the November 5, 2013 decision the ALJ found Mr. Ledbetter has not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act, from July 15, 2011 through the date of the decision. R. at 26-27. On November 20, 2013 Mr. Ledbetter requested a review of the hearing decision. R. at 7-9. On January 9, 2015 the Appeals Council denied Mr. Ledbetter’s request for review, R. at 1-3, thus making the ALJ’s determination the Commissioner’s final decision.
2. ALJ’s Decision.
The ALJ evaluated Mr. Ledbetter’s claims for DIB and SSI using the sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2013). Mr. Ledbetter bears the burden of demonstrating his disability as to the first four steps. At step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 635 (4th Cir. 2015).
At step one the ALJ found Mr. Ledbetter has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 15, 2011, the amended alleged onset date. R. at 15. The ALJ concluded at step two that Mr. Ledbetter had the following severe impairments: “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), affective disorder, anxiety related disorder, disorder of the back and shoulders.” Id. The ALJ further found at step two that all other alleged medically-determinable impairments including obstructive sleep apnea, substance abuse disorder and amaurosis fugax are nonsevere “because they did not exist for a continuous period for twelve months, were responsive to medication, did not require any significant medical treatment, or did not result in any continuous functional limitations in the claimant’s ability to perform either exertional or nonexertional work-related activities.” R. at 16.
At step three the ALJ found Mr. Ledbetter does not have an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals a listed impairment. The ALJ specifically considered Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 3.02 (chronic pulmonary insufficiency), 12.04 (affective disorders) and 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). With regard to the musculoskeletal system, the ALJ found the medical evidence clearly establishes Mr. Ledbetter’s joint disease of the left shoulder. There is however no evidence he suffers from any joint disease in his right extremity. Mr. Ledbetter’s joint disease of the left shoulder does not result in an inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively and therefore, his joint disease does not satisfy the criteria of Listing 1.02. R. at 16. As for Listing 1.04, although medical evidence establishes Mr. Ledbetter’s degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, this impairment does not meet or medically equal the listing since “the record is devoid of evidence of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis with accompanying ineffective ambulation.” Id.
As for Mr. Ledbetter’s COPD, there is medical evidence containing the results of pulmonary function testing. “However, the claimant’s performance on pulmonary function testing is significantly higher than the threshold necessary to meet the criteria of listing 3.02.” Id.
With regard to Mr. Ledbetter’s mental impairments, i.e., affective disorder and anxiety-related disorder, the ALJ specifically considered Listings 12.04 and 12.06. In accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a, 416.920a, the ALJ followed a special technique to evaluate the severity of Mr. Ledbetter’s affective disorder and anxiety-related disorder. The four broad functional areas - (1) activities of daily living; (2) social functioning; (3) concentration, persistence, or pace and (4) episodes of decompensation - are known as the “paragraph B” criteria for most of the mental disorders listed in Appendix 1. At the time of the hearing Mr. Ledbetter resided with a friend suffering from terminal cancer. In exchange for a temporary residence, Mr. Ledbetter performed routine household chores. “Additionally, the claimant’s medical records document the claimant drives regularly and has been taking classes at the College of Southern Maryland purs[u]ing a degree in business after having completed A certificate in information technology.” R. at 17. Upon consideration of these circumstances, the ALJ determined Mr. Ledbetter has a mild restriction in activities of daily living.
With regard to social functioning, the ALJ found Mr. Ledbetter has moderate difficulties. Mr. Ledbetter testified about not having friends. He becomes panicky around crowds of people. The medical records denote Mr. Ledbetter’s tendency towards isolation and being introverted. His social functioning and activities have further decreased with his efforts to maintain his sobriety. “However, despite the claimant’s adjustment to a life free of alcohol, the claimant retains sufficient functioning in this domain to attend AA meetings, interact with his two sons, attend classes in-person at the College of Southern Maryland, and go to the library to do his academic work.” Id.
As for concentration, persistence, or pace, the ALJ determined Mr. Ledbetter has moderate difficulties.
At the hearing, the claimant testified he has problems with concentration and focusing. As an example, the claimant stated he is unable to remember what he has read even with multiple attempts at reading. On mental status examination, the claimant’s medical providers have described the claimant’s memory as good, poor, and intermittent (Exhs. 4F, 5F & 14F). Despite these findings, the claimant retains sufficient functioning in this domain to attend the College of Southern Maryland full-time to pursue a degree in business and turn [in] his academic assignments on time (Exhs. 8F/23-26 & 9F).
Id. Fourth, the ALJ found Mr. Ledbetter has not experienced any episodes of decompensation. Id. Because Mr. Ledbetter’s affective disorder and anxiety-related disorder do not cause two “marked” limitations or, one “marked” limitation and “repeated” episodes of decompensation, the “paragraph B” criteria ...