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Wright v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 4, 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 both parties’ dispositive motions, and Mr. Wright’s reply. [ECF Nos. 15, 16, 17]. 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 Mr. Wright’s motion be denied, that the Commissioner’s motion be granted, and that the Commissioner’s judgment be affirmed pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

Mr. Wright filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), alleging a disability onset date of September 1, 2011. (Tr. 209-221). His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 74-95, 98-123). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on July 8, 2014. (Tr. 45-70). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Wright was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 19-44). The Appeals Council denied Mr. Wright’s request for review, (Tr. 3-8), so the ALJ’s decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

The ALJ found that, during the relevant period, Mr. Wright suffered from the severe impairments of back disorders, diabetes mellitus, essential hypertension, cardiomyopathy, and obesity. (Tr. 24). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Wright retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to

perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and he can occasionally climb ramps/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.

(Tr. 28). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Wright could perform his past relevant work as an auto salesman and maintenance attendant.[1] (Tr. 36-37). Therefore, the ALJ concluded, Mr. Wright was not disabled. Id.

Mr. Wright disagrees. He raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred in finding that Mr. Wright’s anxiety was a non-severe impairment; and (2) that the ALJ erred in applying the Medical-Vocational Rules to his case. Each argument lacks merit.

Mr. Wright first contends that the ALJ should have deemed his anxiety to constitute a severe impairment at step two. Pl. Mot. 9. 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). Here, the ALJ’s decision meets that standard.

At step two, the ALJ applied the special technique for evaluation of mental impairments to Mr. Wright’s diagnoses of anxiety disorder and substance addiction disorder. (Tr. 25-26). The ALJ found that Mr. Wright had mild limitation in the areas of “activities of daily living, ” “social functioning, ” and “concentration, persistence or pace.” (Tr. 25). The ALJ further concluded that Mr. Wright had experienced no episodes of decompensation which have been of extended duration. Id. At step four, the ALJ reviewed the evidence including Mr. Wright’s testimony that he suffered from panic attacks and his wife’s function report describing his limited ability to handle stress. (Tr. 29-30). The ALJ further summarized the results of the psychological consultative evaluation conducted by Dr. James Orth. (Tr. 31). The ALJ considered the GAF score of 52 that was assigned by Dr. Orth, and assigned it “some weight.” (Tr. 35). The ALJ further considered the opinions of the State agency disability physicians and psychological consultants who reviewed Mr. Wright’s mental condition, and assigned “greater weight to the earlier opinions of the State agency disability physicians and psychological consultants.” Id.

As described above, the ALJ provided a thorough analysis of the entire record with respect to Mr. Wright’s mental condition. Mr. Wright contends that one of the State agency disability physicians, Dr. Wessel, found him to have moderate limitations in social functioning and in concentration, persistence, or pace. Pl. Rep. 2-3; (Tr. 108). However, Dr. Wessel also determined that Mr. Wright’s anxiety, as a whole, was a non-severe impairment. Id. Moreover, the ALJ explained his rationale for assigning greater weight to the earlier opinions of the State agency physicians, namely the opinion of Dr. Levasseur, who found only mild limitations in the functional domains of social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 78). Ultimately, in light of the differing opinions from the non-examining physicians, Mr. Wright’s argument amounts to an invitation to reweigh the evidence that was fully considered by the ALJ. That invitation must be declined, in light of the applicable legal standard. The ALJ’s conclusion is supported by substantial evidence, namely the opinions of Drs. Levasseur and Wessel that Mr.

Wright’s anxiety is non-severe, and the opinion of Dr. Levasseur that Mr. Wright suffers no more than mild limitations in any functional domain.[2] Thus, I recommend that the ALJ’s conclusion be affirmed.

Finally, Mr. Wright contends that the ALJ failed to address the fact that he changed age categories during the pendency of his claim, which would affect the application of the Medical-Vocational Guidelines to his case. Pl. Mot. 10. However, the ALJ concluded at step four of the sequential analysis that Mr. Wright was capable of performing his past relevant work. (Tr. 36). The Medical-Vocational Guidelines are not applied until step five, in situations where a claimant “is prevented by a severe medically determinable impairment from doing vocationally relevant past work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 416.969. Because the ALJ denied Mr. Wright’s claim as a result of the step four finding that he could perform past relevant work, the ALJ did not reach the Medical-Vocational Guidelines at step five, and did not have to determine Mr. Wright’s appropriate age categories.


For the reasons set forth above, I respectfully ...

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