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Coulter v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 22, 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 the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Ms. Coulter's reply memorandum. [ECF Nos. 12, 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 Ms. Coulter'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).

         Ms. Coulter filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on June 26, 2011, alleging that her disability began on March 17, 2011. (Tr. 183-91). Her applications were denied initially on October 14, 2011, and on reconsideration on July 18, 2012. (Tr. 59-78, 79-80, 118-31). An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a video hearing on January 30, 2014, at which Ms. Coulter was represented by counsel. (Tr. 34-58). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Coulter was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 16-33). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Coulter's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Coulter suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine with ankylosing spondylitis, hypertrophic changes in the knees, obesity, migraine headaches, and depression. (Tr. 21). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to:

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can lift and carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally, she needs to have the option to changes [sic] positions at will while remaining on task, she can occasionally climb but cannot climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds, and she can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Nonexertionally, she is able to use common sense understanding to perform instructions provided in oral, written, or diagrammatic form consistent with a range of unskilled work at or below reasoning level 3 as those terms are defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.

(Tr. 23). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Ms. Coulter could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 28).

         Ms. Coulter disagrees. She raises two primary arguments on appeal. First, she argues that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of whether she met Listing 1.04A. Second, she argues that the ALJ's credibility findings were unsupported by substantial evidence. Each argument lacks merit for reasons discussed below.

         Turning to Ms. Coulter's first argument, she asserts that the ALJ "erred at step three of the sequential evaluation by failing to properly evaluate whether Plaintiff's impairments met or equaled Listing 1.04A." Pl. Mem. at 8. Listings describe each of the major body system impairments that the Agency "consider[s] to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a), 416.925(a). Listings 1.00 et. seq. through Listings 11.00, et. seq., Listings 13.00 et. seq., and Listings 14.00 et. seq., pertain to physical impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Each physical impairment listing contains a set of signs or objective medical findings which must be present for the claimant's impairment to meet the listing. See, e.g., id. at § 4.02.

         Listing 1.04 pertains to disorders of the spine. To meet the Listing, a claimant must have a diagnosed spinal impairment "resulting in compromise of a nerve root (including the cauda equina) or the spinal cord, " with additional medical findings delineated in subsections A through C. Id. at § 1.04. Ms. Coulter argues that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of whether she met Listing 1.04A. Pl. Mem. at 8-31. In addition to the above noted requirements, subsection A also requires that a claimant demonstrate the following:

Evidence of nerve root compression characterized by nero-anatomic distribution of pain, limitation of motion of the spine, motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the lower back, positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine)[.]

20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 § 1.04. While Listing 1.04A includes various medical findings necessary to meet the Listing, those findings must be precipitated by "[e]vidence of nerve root compression." Id. I note that in order to meet a listing, "every element of the listing must be satisfied." Huntington v. Apfel, 101 F.Supp.2d 381, 384 (D. Md. 2000).

         In the instant case, the ALJ found that Ms. Coulter's impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 1.04. Specifically, the ALJ stated that, "[h]er degenerative disc disease has not resulted in a compromise of a nerve root or the spinal cord, motor loss, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in an inability to ambulate effectively or perform fine and gross movements effectively meeting sections 1.04 or 1.02 of Appendix 1." (Tr. 22). Ms. Coulter argues that the ALJ's analysis of whether she met Listing 1.04A was deficient because he "broadly conflated the various subsections into one incomplete summation of Listing 1.04, " and thus, "erred by requiring Plaintiff to produce more evidence than the listing requires." Pl. Mem. at 10. This argument, however, misconstrues the ALJ's analysis of Listing 1.04, namely because the ALJ reviewed all three subsections of Listing 1.04 simultaneously and concluded that Ms. Coulter's impairments did not meet any of the individual subsections. The ALJ did not, as Ms. Coulter argues, require her to prove more than necessary to meet Listing 1.04A by noting that she is able to ambulate effectively, since that is a requirement of 1.04C. The same is true of the ALJ's findings that Ms. Coulter did not exhibit spinal arachnoiditis or lumbar spinal stenosis, which are required by subsections B and C, respectively, or the inability to perform fine and gross movements effectively as required by Listing 1.02 for major dysfunction of a joint.

         Ms. Coulter also argues that the ALJ failed to connect the listing requirements to the evidence. In particular, she contends that, "The ALJ provided little explicit analysis, and never connected the evidence back to the specific 1.04A requirements." Pl. Mem. at 16. In Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit held that remand was warranted, as pertinent to this case, because, "The ALJ's decision regarding the applicability of Listing 1.04A [was] devoid of reasoning." The Radford court noted that the ALJ in that case stated that he had considered Listing 1.04A among several listings and summarily concluded that the claimant did not meet or equal the listing, and that there were no medical opinions of record stating that the claimant met or equaled the listing. Id. The Court held that the ALJ's lack of discussion made it "impossible for a reviewing court to evaluate whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings, " particularly in light of "probative evidence strongly suggesting that [the claimant] meets or equals Listing 1.04A." Id. Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit found that the ALJ failed to indicate why he gave more or less weight to the medical opinions of record, including his reasons for giving more weight to the opinions of non-treating State agency physicians than to the claimant's treating physicians. Id. at 295-96.

         The ALJ's discussion of Listing 1.04A in the instant case does not suffer the same deficiencies at issue in Radford. Rather, the ALJ's discussion of his RFC assessment, the objective medical evidence, and the medical opinions of record provide clear and substantial evidence for his finding that Ms. Coulter's impairments did not meet or equal Listing 1.04A. Specifically, the ALJ noted that after a cervical surgery in 2011, Ms. Coulter stated that although she had persistent tingling in her left forearm, her pain had resolved. (Tr. 25). Likewise, the ALJ cited findings from examinations stating that Ms. Coulter exhibited a full range of motion in her neck, normal muscle tone and bulk, and no sensory deficits. Id. The ALJ noted that her grip strength in her upper left extremity was occasionally decreased, but that she had normal fine motor skills. Id. Similarly, regarding her lumbar spinal impairment, the ALJ cited the normal findings from a nerve conduction study of Ms. Coulter's lower ...

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