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. 12, 13]. 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. Thomas'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).
Thomas protectively filed applications for Disability
Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental
Security Income ("SSI") on January 2, 2012,
alleging that she became disabled on January 16, 2011. (Tr.
215-223). Ms. Thomas later amended her onset date for both
claims to May 23, 2012. (Tr. 15). Her applications were
denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 137-42,
151-64). Following a hearing on February 6, 2014, an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") determined that
Ms. Thomas was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act during the relevant time frame, and issued an
opinion denying benefits. (Tr. 12-84). The Appeals Council
denied Ms. Thomas's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that, during the relevant period, Ms. Thomas suffered
from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease,
degenerative joint disease, Grave's disease, varicose
veins of the lower extremities, and obesity. (Tr. 18).
Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Thomas
retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except that the claimant is limited to frequent
climbing ramps/stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling,
crouching, or crawling; occasional climbing
ladders/ropes/scaffolds; and only occasional exposure to
cold, heat, or hazards (unprotected heights or hazardous
(Tr. 23). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Ms. Thomas
could perform several representative light jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 32-33).
Therefore, the ALJ concluded, Ms. Thomas was not disabled.
Thomas disagrees. She argues on appeal that the ALJ erred in
assigning weight to the opinions of medical sources. Her
argument lacks merit.
Ms. Thomas argues that the ALJ assigned insufficient weight
to the opinion of her treating provider, Stephanie Dudzinski,
a certified physician's assistant. Pl. Mem. at 8-10. The
ALJ's opinion contains detailed summaries of each of Ms.
Thomas's visits with Ms. Dudzinski. (Tr. 26-28). The ALJ
then discussed, again in great detail, Ms. Dudzinski's
opinion, noting that Ms. Dudzinski had treated Ms. Thomas
only for about four months, with an appointment once per
month, at the time of the opinion. (Tr. 29). Finally, the ALJ
assigned Ms. Dudzinski's opinion "little to no
weight" for four reasons: (1) the fact that Ms.
Dudzinski is not an "acceptable medical source, "
(2) the fact that Ms. Dudzinski had only seen Ms. Thomas a
few times before issuing the opinion; (3) the fact that Ms.
Dudzinski appeared to rely on Ms. Thomas's subjective
allegations "without balance;" and (4) the fact
that the limitations cited by Ms. Dudzinski were inconsistent
with Ms. Thomas's "mixed findings on exam" and
conservative treatment for back pain. (Tr. 32). It is
important to note that the ALJ did not simply reject Ms.
Dudzinski's opinion because she is not a physician, but
appropriately considered it as part of a review of the record
as a whole. Further, the ALJ is correct that there are
treatment records showing full range of motion, normal gait,
intact motor strength, and mild or no tenderness. See,
e.g., (Tr. 60, 676, 679, 702, 705, 764, 795). While
there is evidence in the record that could also be marshaled
to support a finding of disability (or, specifically, an
assignment of greater weight to Ms. Dudzinski's opinion),
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 extensive
analysis provides ample basis for that finding.
overall, the ALJ supported his RFC assessment with other
substantial evidence, including the results of diagnostic
testing, the medical records, and, to some extent, the
opinions of the State agency medical consultants. (Tr.
30-32). Those consultants opined that Ms. Thomas would have
fewer limitations than the ALJ eventually found. However, the
ALJ assigned their opinions only "partial weight, "
reasoning that Ms. Thomas's need for laser ablation
surgery and her diagnostic imaging results post-dating the
State agency medical consultants' review suggested that
she had greater limitations during the relevant period. (Tr.
32). The record thus evidences that the ALJ performed a
careful review of the medical record and supported his RFC
assessment with substantial evidence. Accordingly, I
recommend that his opinion be affirmed.
reasons set forth above, I respectfully recommend that:
1. The Court DENY Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment
[ECF No. 12];
2. the Court GRANT Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment [ECF No. 13];
3. the Court AFFIRM the Commissioner's judgment pursuant
to sentence four of 42 ...