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Steele v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

April 11, 2016



Stephanie A. Gallagher United States 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. 13, 14]. I find that no hearing is necessary. See 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), 1383(c)(3); 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 deny both motions, reverse the judgment of the Commissioner, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further analysis in accordance with this Report and Recommendations.

Ms. Steele filed an application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on November 16, 2011. (Tr. 158-63). Her application was denied initially on December 21, 2011, and on reconsideration on March 19, 2012. (Tr. 87-90, 94-95). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on August 23, 2013, at which Ms. Steele was represented by counsel. (Tr. 39-68). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Steele was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 23-38). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Steele’s request for review, (Tr. 6-11), so the ALJ’s decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

The ALJ found that Ms. Steele suffered from the severe impairments of bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder. (Tr. 28). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Steele retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant can carry out simple tasks in two hour increments; have occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, but only superficial contact with the general public; and adapt to simple changes in a routine work setting.

(Tr. 30). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Steele could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 33-34).

Ms. Steele disagrees. She raises three primary arguments on appeal: 1) that the ALJ failed to properly weigh medical evidence; 2) that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her credibility; and 3) that the ALJ relied on flawed VE testimony pursuant to the Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). While Ms. Steele’s first two arguments lack merit, I agree that the hypothetical question the ALJ posed to the VE was deficient under Mascio, and recommend that the Court remand the case to the Commissioner for further analysis pursuant to its holdings. In recommending remand, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ’s ultimate conclusion that Ms. Steele is not entitled to benefits is correct or incorrect.

Turning first to Ms. Steele’s unsuccessful arguments, she contends that the ALJ failed to properly weigh medical evidence in reaching her decision, particularly the opinion of Ms. Steele’s treating psychiatrist, Dr. Saeed. Ms. Steele contends that the ALJ erred in not assigning controlling weight to Dr. Saeed’s opinion as a treating physician. Social Security regulations provide that:

If we find that a treating source’s opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of [a claimant’s] impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, we will give it controlling weight.

20 C.F.R. § 416.927(c)(2). However, if a treating source’s medical opinion is not assigned controlling weight, the ALJ should consider the following factors in determining the weight to give the opinion: (1) the length of the treatment relationship, including 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. § 416.927(c).

In the instant case, Dr. Saeed opined that Ms. Steele had marked limitations in understanding and memory, sustained concentration and persistence, and social interactions and adaptation. (Tr. 32). The ALJ assigned Dr. Saeed’s opinion “little weight” because “it is not supported by the record evidence as a whole as discussed herein. Id. The record simply does not support that the claimant has marked limitations in the areas mentioned by Dr. Saeed.” Id. The ALJ also noted Dr. Saeed’s role as a treating psychiatrist from August of 2011 through June of 2013 in weighing his opinion. Id.

Reviewing the remainder of the ALJ’s discussion, the ALJ cited evidence that Ms. Steele has had “psychological problems since childhood, but never got an Individualized Education plan because her mother was an addict.” Id. She also noted Ms. Steele’s testimony that she stayed home when she was young to help raise her mother’s children, but was nevertheless able to complete school through the 11th grade. Id. In addition, the ALJ cited the fact that Ms. Steele is the primary caretaker for her four children. Id. Based on this evidence, the ALJ stated, “Accordingly, I find that while it appears the claimant had a difficult childhood, and a possibly difficult personal situation currently, the record evidence as a whole does not show that she has debilitating mental limitations.”[1]

The analysis of Dr. Saeed’s opinion was proper under Social Security regulations. The ALJ found that Dr. Saeed’s opinion should not be given controlling weight because it was inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record, including Ms. Steele’s ability to care for her four children. The ALJ also considered relevant factors in assigning weight to Dr. Saeed’s opinion, including the length of his treatment relationship with Ms. Steele, his specialty as a psychiatrist, and the consistency of his opinion with the other record evidence. This analysis comports with the Social Security regulations outlined above. Importantly, this Court’s role is not to reweigh the evidence or to substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, but simply to adjudicate whether the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls to the ALJ. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 179 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)). Here, the ALJ adequately supported her findings regarding Dr. Saeed’s opinion with substantial evidence.

Ms. Steele next argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her credibility. Specifically, she contends that the ALJ “failed to make an explicit finding as to how the evidence contradicted any of Ms. Steele’s testimony or other statements in the record.” Pl. Mem. at 12. As discussed above, the ALJ cited the fact that Ms. Steele is able to function as the primary caretaker to her four children in finding that her limitations are not as severe as alleged. (Tr. 31 32). The ALJ noted that although Ms. Steele initially testified that she “cannot do anything” for her children, she later testified that she helps them get ready for school and acknowledged that she has no physical problems. (Tr. 31). In addition, the ALJ cited the fact that Ms. Steele has not been hospitalized for her psychological impairments since 2007 and that she was able to cease her self-reported heavy alcohol consumption “cold turkey.” Id. The ALJ also noted that Ms. Steele’s Global Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) score increased over time and with treatment, that she denied homicidal and suicidal ideations even during periods when she otherwise described feeling ...

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