United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
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. [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 Ms. Jerman’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. §
Jerman filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB") on March 30, 2011, alleging that she became
disabled on February 2, 2011. (Tr. 316-17). She then filed an
application for Supplemental Security Income
("SSI") on April 1, 2011, alleging that she became
disabled on December 11, 2009. (Tr. 309-15). Ms. Jerman later
amended her onset date for both claims to January 1, 2012.
(Tr. 41). Her applications were denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 186-94). Following a hearing, an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") issued an opinion
denying benefits. (Tr. 156-68). However, the Appeals Council
originally remanded Ms. Jerman’s case for further
consideration. (Tr. 169-73). An ALJ held a second hearing on
December 2, 2014. (Tr. 59-101). Following that hearing, on
February 13, 2015, the ALJ again determined that Ms. Jerman
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 38-58). This time,
the Appeals Council denied Ms. Jerman’s request for
review, (Tr. 1-7), so the ALJ’s 2015 decision
constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that, during the relevant period, Ms. Jerman suffered
from the severe impairments of carpal tunnel syndrome,
cervical radiculopathy, left degenerative meniscal tear,
chondromalacia, migraines, reflex sympathetic dystrophy,
fibromyalgia, and obesity. (Tr. 44). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Jerman retained the
residual functional capacity ("RFC") to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds;
occasional climbing of stairs or ramps; occasional stooping,
crouching, crawling or kneeling; no exposure to hazards such
as unprotected heights; and occasional handling or grasping
with the left non dominant hand.
(Tr. 46). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Ms. Jerman
could perform several representative light jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 51).
Therefore, the ALJ concluded, Ms. Jerman was not disabled.
Jerman disagrees. She raises three primary arguments on
appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred in assigning weight to the
opinions of medical sources and in determining her RFC; (2)
that the ALJ erred at step two by failing to find any severe
mental impairments; and (3) that the ALJ erred in assessing
her credibility. Each argument lacks merit.
Ms. Jerman argues that the ALJ did not assign sufficient
weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Crosse.
Pl. Mot. 12-15. The ALJ provided a detailed summary of Dr.
Crosse’s opinions and cited to specific record evidence
undermining Dr. Crosse’s conclusions. (Tr. 49-50).
Thus, the ALJ appropriately supported her assignments of
"some weight" or "little weight" to Dr.
Crosse’s various opinions. Id. While there is
evidence in the record that could be marshaled to support a
finding of disability (or, specifically, an assignment of
greater weight to Dr. Crosse’s opinions), 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). The ALJ’s extensive
analysis in this case provides ample basis for that finding.
Jerman further contends that the ALJ lacked an evidentiary
basis for determining the RFC assessment in the absence of
any medical opinion concurring with the assessed limitations.
Pl. Mot. at 15-17. However, an ALJ need not parrot a single
medical opinion, or even assign "great weight" to
any opinions, in determining an RFC. Instead, an ALJ is
required to consider "all of the relevant medical and
other evidence." See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a) (3); see also Felton-Miller v.
Astrue, 459 F. App’x 226, 230-31 (4th Cir. 2011)
(determining that an ALJ need not obtain an expert medical
opinion to back a particular RFC, but should base an
individual’s RFC on all available evidence). Here, the
ALJ considered Ms. Jerman’s testimony, her physical
examination findings and imaging results, her mental health
status examinations, records from a consultative examination,
and the opinion evidence in the record, including GAF scores.
(Tr. 47-50). The ALJ provided a discussion of each of those
pieces of evidence, and provided explanations for her
conclusions. Accordingly, the RFC assessment determined by
the ALJ is supported by substantial evidence, despite the
lack of a single medical opinion setting forth the same
Jerman next argues that the ALJ should have found her mental
impairments to be severe at step two. Pl. Mot. 17-19. An
impairment is considered "severe" if it
significantly limits the claimant’s ability to work.
See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(a), 416.921(a).
The claimant bears the burden of proving that her impairment
is severe. See Johnson v. Astrue, Civil Action No.
PWG-10-3139, 2012 WL 203397, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 23, 2012)
(citing Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir.
1995)). Here, in several points in the opinion, the ALJ
expressly considered Ms. Jerman’s depression and
post-traumatic stress disorder. (Tr. 44, 48, 49). The ALJ
explained that Ms. Jerman’s restrictions in activities
of daily living, according to her own description, are due to
her physical limitations, not mental. (Tr. 45). The ALJ noted
that mental status examination findings have largely been
normal, and that Ms. Jerman did not regularly see a mental
health treatment provider. (Tr. 45, 48, 49). Thus, the ALJ
cited to substantial evidence to support her conclusion.
However, even if the ALJ had erred in her evaluation of the
mental impairments at step two, such error would be harmless.
Because Ms. Jerman made the threshold showing that other
impairments were severe, the ALJ continued with the
sequential evaluation process and considered all of the
impairments, both severe and non-severe, that significantly
impacted Ms. Jerman’s ability to work. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. The analysis
supporting the RFC determination evidences a complete
consideration of the medical evidence relating to Ms.
Jerman’s mental health diagnoses, and the RFC
determination is supported by substantial evidence.
Accordingly, there is no basis for remand.
Ms. Jerman contests the ALJ’s adverse credibility
finding. Pl. Mot. 19-21. The ALJ cited numerous examples to
support her assessment that Ms. Jerman was not fully
credible, including: (1) discrepancies between Ms.
Jerman’s complaints and the findings on physical
examination and imaging; (2) the fact that Ms. Jerman
testified that she needed a cane, but doctors’ notes
reflect no use of an assistive device for ambulation; and (3)
the lack of follow-up treatment with an orthopedist. (Tr.
47-48). The credibility determination made by an ALJ warrants
substantial deference, and should not be disturbed absent
"exceptional circumstances." Bishop v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 583 Fed. App’x 65, 68
(4th Cir. 2014) (citing Eldeco, Inc. v. NLRB, 132
F.3d 1007, 1011 (4th Cir. 1997)). Such circumstances included
cases where the credibility determination "is
unreasonable, contradicts other findings of fact, or is based
on an inadequate reason or no reason at all."
Eldeco, 132 F.3d at 1011 (internal quotations
omitted). Here, I find no exceptional circumstances, and
therefore recommend that the ALJ’s credibility
determination be accepted.
reasons set forth above, I respectfully recommend that:
1. The Court DENY Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary