United States District Court, D. Maryland
MARGARET JEFFRIES, as Parent and Guardian of J.J.J., a minor child
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-referenced case has been
referred to me for review of 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’ motions for summary judgment.
[ECF Nos. 12, 17]. 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), 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).
I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R.
105.6 (D. Md. 2014). For the reasons set forth below, I
recommend that Ms. Jeffries’s motion be denied and the
Commissioner’s motion be granted.
Jeffries applied for Children’s Supplemental Security
Income ("SSI") on behalf of her minor child,
J.J.J., on September 11, 2012, alleging a disability onset
date of May 7, 2004. (Tr. 148-53). Her application was denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 71-74, 80-81). After a
hearing on September 18, 2014, an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ") issued an opinion denying benefits. (Tr.
8-38, 39-60). The Appeals Council denied review, making the
ALJ’s decision the final, reviewable decision of the
Agency. (Tr. 1-5).
evaluated Ms. Jeffries’s claim using the three-step
sequential process for claims involving childhood SSI, as set
forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. The ALJ’s findings
at steps one and two favored Ms. Jeffries’s claim. At
step one, the ALJ found that J.J.J. had not engaged in any
substantial gainful activity since the application date. (Tr.
14). At step two, the ALJ found that J.J.J. suffered from the
severe impairments of congenital heart disease, speech and
language impairment, and immune deficiency disorder.
Id. At step three, however, the ALJ found that
J.J.J. did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met any listing. Id. Additionally,
the ALJ determined that J.J.J. did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that would be functionally
equivalent to any listing. (Tr. 14-30). Therefore, the ALJ
determined that J.J.J. was not disabled for purposes of
Children’s SSI benefits. (Tr. 30).
review of the ALJ’s decision is confined to whether
substantial evidence, in the record as it was reviewed by the
ALJ, supports the decision and whether correct legal
standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 390, 404 (1971). Even if there is other
evidence that may support Ms. Jeffries’s position, I am
not permitted to reweigh the evidence or to substitute my own
judgment for that of the ALJ. See Hays v. Sullivan,
907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In considering the
entire record, I find that the ALJ’s RFC determination
was supported by substantial evidence.
Jeffries’s argument is a procedural one. She contends,
quite correctly, that the law requires an ALJ to make an
express assignment of weight to each opinion from a medical
source. See S.S.R. 96-2p. In this case, the ALJ did
not make an express assignment of weight to the residual
functional capacity questionnaires filled out by
J.J.J.’s treating pulmonologist, Dr. Sotomayor (Tr.
729-32) and evaluating psychologist, Dr. Orth. (Tr.
the failure to make express assignments of weight constitutes
error, the error is harmless in this case because appellate
review is not thwarted. The ALJ expressly considered both Dr.
Sotomayor’s and Dr. Orth’s written opinions in
considering J.J.J.’s limitations in each functional
area. (Tr. 23, 27, 28). Nothing in those
opinions suggests an outcome different from the conclusions
reached by the ALJ with respect to the finding that J.J.J.
suffers "marked" limitation in the area of health
and physical well-being. (Tr. 25-29). In fact, it is clear
that the ALJ relied on both Dr. Sotomayor’s and Dr.
Orth’s opinions in reaching that conclusion. As a
pulmonologist, Dr. Sotomayor’s opinion is relevant only
as to the "health and physical well being" domain.
only potential discrepancy between the opinion of Dr. Orth
and the ALJ’s conclusion is that Dr. Orth found that
J.J.J. displayed symptoms of "social withdrawal or
isolation, " constant avoidance of interpersonal
activities, and constant failure to initiate social contact.
(Tr. 911). However, Dr. Orth also concluded that J.J.J. would
never miss school as a result of his limitations. (Tr. 910).
Dr. Orth was an examining, not a treating, physician.
Moreover, the ALJ cited to other evidence to support his
conclusion that J.J.J. had no limitation in social
functioning, particularly the opinion of J.J.J.’s third
grade teacher, who believed J.J.J. had no problems
interacting and relating with others, other than some
difficulties with articulation that did "not impact the
ability to be intelligible." (Tr. 21, 216-17).
Ultimately, even if the ALJ credited Dr. Orth’s opinion
over the other evidence, it would not warrant a finding of
"marked" limitation in the area of social
functioning. In the absence of a marked limitation, the
ALJ’s determination of "no disability" would
Ms. Jeffries does not suggest that an express assignment of
weight to the opinions from Drs. Sotomayor and Orth would
change the outcome of the case. I note that the Fourth
Circuit has declined to find harmless error where an error or
omission precludes meaningful review. See Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636-37 (4th Cir. 2015)
("[T]he ALJ has determined what functions he believes
[the claimant] can perform, but his opinion is sorely lacking
in the analysis needed for us to review meaningfully those
conclusions."); Fox v. Colvin, 632 Fed.Appx.
750, 756 (4th Cir. 2015) ("Once more, we are confronted
with whether we can give meaningful review to the ALJ’s
decision."). However, I find that the ALJ’s
failure to assign weight to the opinions of Drs. Sotomayor
and Orth does not preclude meaningful review for the reasons
discussed above. In light of the purely procedural argument
and the harmless nature of the error, I do not recommend
reasons set forth above, I respectfully recommend that the
Court DENY Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment,
[ECF No. 12]; GRANT Defendant’s Motion for Summary
Judgment, [ECF No. 17]; AFFIRM the decision of the
Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); and order
the Clerk to CLOSE this case.
objections to this Report and Recommendations must be served
and filed within fourteen (14) days, pursuant to Federal Rule
of Civil Procedure 72(b)(2) and Local Rule 301.5(b).
to file written objections to the proposed findings,
conclusions, and recommendations of the Magistrate Judge
contained in the foregoing report within fourteen (14) days
after being served with a copy of this report may result in
the waiver of any right to a denovo review
of the determinations contained in the report and such
failure shall bar you from challenging on appeal the ...