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Janes v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 3, 2016

Tracey Ann Janes
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge

Dear Counsel:

On April 9, 2014, Plaintiff Tracey Ann Janes petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration’s (“SSA”) final decision to deny her claims. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment, and Plaintiff’s reply. (ECF Nos. 13, 16, 17). In addition, I have reviewed the Commissioner’s supplemental brief regarding the impact of the Fourth Circuit’s recent decision in Fox v. Colvin, Fed. App’x, 2015 WL 9204287 (4th Cir. Dec. 17, 2015).[1] (ECF No. 20). 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. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny both motions, reverse the Commissioner’s decision in part, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. This letter explains my rationale.

Ms. Janes filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits on September 6, 2011, and a claim for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on September 28, 2011. (Tr. 191-197, 198-206). She alleged a disability onset date of May 30, 2010. (Tr. 191). After her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration, Ms. Janes filed a request for hearing on May 10, 2012. (Tr. 148). A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) took place on November 5, 2013. (Tr. 36-88). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Janes was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 7-31). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Janes’s request for review, (Tr. 1-5), so the ALJ’s decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

The ALJ found that Ms. Janes suffered from the severe impairments of bipolar disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”), personality disorder, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”). (Tr. 12). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Janes retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except that, because of her mental impairments, she can perform jobs consisting of only unskilled, routine, and repetitive tasks in a work environment with flexible hourly quotas and involving only simple, work-related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes.

(Tr. 19). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Janes could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 30-31).

Ms. Janes raises two arguments on appeal. She first asserts that the ALJ failed to give controlling weight to the opinions of her treating health professionals when analyzing the severity of her affective disorder and RFC. Pl. Mem. 14. Ms. Janes also asserts that the ALJ’s determination that her mental impairments did not meet or medically equal the Agency’s listing of impairments for affective disorders, Listing 12.04, was not supported by substantial evidence. Pl. Mem. 24. I disagree with both arguments.

A. The ALJ Gave Proper Weight to the Opinions of the Health Professionals

In support of her first argument, Ms. Janes outlines her history of mental health treatment with psychiatrists Xiaoping Shao and Sanjeev Singhal, beginning in 2005, along with her regular visits with psychological counselor Stephen Williams, LCSW-C, beginning in 2008. She argues that the opinions of her treating medical professionals should be given greater weight than that of the Agency’s medical professional, Jannifer Hill-Keyes, Ph.D., because Dr. Hill-Keyes “never once laid hands or eyes on Ms. Janes, ” and based her opinions on “a single occasion in which she reviewed incomplete documentation which did not even include the opinions of Dr. Singhal or Mr. Williams.” Pl. Mem. 16. According to Ms. Janes, Dr. Singhal’s findings that she “had weeks during which she felt irritable, helpless and hopeless followed by a manic state in which she was scattered, forgetful and talking non-stop, ” that she “had poor insight into her illness, ” and “had multiple stressors and . . . was depressed and anxious, ” and that she “needed to be followed closely, ” are supported by the record, which “as a whole [is] consistent and uncontradicted by any evidence other than the single record review of Dr. Hill-Keyes.” Id. at 15, 17.

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). In making a disability determination, an ALJ evaluates medical opinions pursuant to the following non-exclusive list: (1) whether the physician has examined the applicant, (2) the treatment relationship between the physician and the applicant, (3) the supportability of the physician’s opinion, (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record, and (5) whether the physician is a specialist. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). The ALJ may accord “greater weight to the testimony of a treating physician because the treating physician has necessarily examined the applicant and has a treatment relationship with the applicant.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 (4th Cir. 2005) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). While this “treating physician rule” generally requires a court to accord greater weight to a treating physician’s testimony, the rule does not require that the testimony be given “controlling weight.” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The treating physician’s opinion is only entitled to controlling weight if it is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001). “Thus, by negative implication, if a physician’s opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight.” Id. (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 590) (alterations omitted).

Here, the ALJ accorded “significant weight” to the opinion of Dr. Hill-Keyes, and “little weight” to Dr. Singhal’s opinion. (Tr. 27). The ALJ’s reasoning for this decision accords with the legal standard discussed above. After providing a detailed account of the inconsistencies between Ms. Janes’s subjective assessment of her symptoms and the objective evidence of record, see (Tr. 20-26), the ALJ explained that Dr. Singhal’s opinion “relied quite heavily on the subjective report of symptoms and limitations provided by [Ms. Janes], ” despite the existence of “good reasons for questioning the reliability” of these subjective complaints. (Tr. 27).

For example, in July, 2011, Dr. Singhal opined that Ms. Janes suffered from pressured speech, “[b]ipolar syndrome with a history of episodic periods manifested by the full symptomatic picture of both manic and depressive syndromes, ” mood disturbances, manic syndrome, “[e]motional lability, [e]asy distractibility, [h]yperactivity, [i]ntense and unstable interpersonal relationships, ” and “[i]nvolvement in activities that have a high probability of painful consequences which are not recognized.” (Tr. 337-338). Dr. Singhal further opined that, as a result of these problems, Ms. Janes would have “no useful ability to function” in several unskilled work-related areas, such as regular attendance and punctuality, getting along with co-workers, dealing with normal work stress, and remembering and carrying out tasks. (Tr. 339). However, the ALJ noted that Ms. Janes testified that she retains the ability to “care for a small child four days a week, do household chores, go shopping, prepare food, volunteer with a youth group for 2-1/2 hours once a week on a consistent basis, and leave town at least three times a year for 3-4 days at a time.” (Tr. 22). Moreover, the ALJ noted that Dr. Singhal’s treatment plan with respect to Ms. Janes’s mental impairments was “routine and conservative, ” and was “not consistent with what one would expect if [Ms. Janes] were truly disabled, as [Dr. Singhal] has reported, ” and that both Dr. Singhal and Stephen Williams, LCSW-C, Ms. Janes’s psychological counselor, in addition to Ms. Janes herself, had opined that her impairments are effectively managed by medication. (Tr. 27, 28). These inconsistencies, in addition to others cited by the ALJ, provide sufficient justification for the ALJ’s decision to accord little weight to Dr. Singhal’s opinion.

Importantly, the facts in this case are distinguishable from those in Morales v. Apfel, in which the Third Circuit found the ALJ’s refusal to credit the claimant’s treating physician improper because the ALJ’s decision was “not based on objective medical evidence, ” but, rather, was predicated on the ALJ “simply not believ[ing] [the claimant’s] testimony at the hearing” and “disregard[ing[ medical opinion based solely on his own amorphous impressions.” 225 F.3d 310, 318 (3d Cir. 2000). Unlike Morales, in the instant case, the ALJ based his opinion on the evidence of record discussing Ms. Janes’s daily activities, the intensity of her symptoms, and her responsiveness to medication and other treatment relative to the longitudinal objective medical evidence. (Tr. 21). In so doing, the ALJ found that Ms. Janes’s daily activities are “inconsistent with a disabling level of impairments, ” given that Ms. Janes testified she cannot work full time, but also admitted that she ...


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