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Ferguson v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

June 22, 2016

CORNELIUS FERGUSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          THOMAS M. DiGIROLAMO, Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Cornelius Ferguson seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant" or the "Commissioner") denying his applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14).[1] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that he is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) is GRANTED, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) is DENIED, and the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED.

         I

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1958, has a college education, and previously worked as a customer service representative, dispatcher, and equipment technician. R. at 23, 31, 256. Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on October 14, 2011, alleging disability beginning on August 1, 2010, due to depression and anxiety. R. at 176-87, 204, 208. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). R. at 74-113, 116-32. On February 5, 2014, ALJ Andrew M. Emerson held a hearing in Baltimore, Maryland, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. R. at 25-73. On March 20, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset date of disability of August 1, 2010, through the date of the decision. R. at 11-24. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on May 7, 2015. R. at 1-4, 10. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On July 8, 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Upon the parties' consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case subsequently was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.

         II

         Summary of Evidence

         A. State Agency Medical Consultants

         On March 6, 2012, a state agency consultant, K. Wessel, Ed.D., using the psychiatric review technique ("PRT") under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a, evaluated Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09 relating to affective disorders, anxiety-related disorders, and substance addiction disorders (R. at 77-78, 85-86). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, §§ 12.04, 12.06, 12.09. Dr. Wessel opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff's mental impairments caused him to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) one or two repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 77, 85. Dr. Wessel did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 77, 85. Dr. Wessel thus assessed Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity ("RFC") (R. at 78-80, 86-88) and opined that he was moderately limited in his ability to (1) understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (3) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; and to (4) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 78-80, 86-88.

         On August 10, 2012, Elliott Rotman, Ph.D., also assessed Plaintiff's mental RFC (R. at 99-101, 109-11) and opined that he was moderately limited in his ability to (1) understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; and to (3) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 99-101, 109-11.

         On September 11, 2012, another state agency consultant, Manuel Mejia, again used the PRT to evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listings 12.04, 12.06, and 12.09. R. at 98-99, 108-09. Mr. Mejia opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff's impairments caused him to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) mild difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) one or two repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 98, 108. Mr. Mejia also did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 98, 108.

         B. Hearing Testimony

         1. Plaintiff's Testimony

         The ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's testimony in his decision:

[Plaintiff] last worked as an equipment technician. [Plaintiff] testified he had a problem with alcohol in 2000 and 2001. He denied having a problem with alcohol in 2011. However, when [Plaintiff] was read his statements to his doctors regarding his alcohol use in 2010, [Plaintiff] admitted to drinking at least a six-pack of beer per day. He was also taking opiate pain pills that he bought on the street. May of 2011 is when [Plaintiff] was incarcerated for public urination. In 2011, [Plaintiff] was attending community college part-time to obtain a certificate in addictions counseling. In June 2011, he was getting two B's and a C in his classes, but after that his grades slipped and he was not able to keep up in the classroom. He testified he did not receive his certificate from this program.
In the summer of 2012, he reported that he had a fiance [sic]. However, he testified that they separated and are now just friends. He went to St. Martin in the Caribbean, in the summer of 2012 on a mission with his church. They had a week-long church revival. He distributed pamphlets about the revival and would talk to people in the community during the day. At night, he would help set up dinners. He testified that he noticed he was not able to communicate with people as well as he used to and being around a lot of people became an issue.
He also helped his uncle in New Jersey, who was ill for a few weeks before he passed away. He needed help with personal care, like going to the bathroom, and needed help around the house. This was in January 2011.
He is still taking Lexapro, which he said helps. He is also taking Xanax, which helps with anxiety. He "cannot say" that there are any side effects from his medications. He testified that he has not stopped drinking entirely, but only drinks some wine around the holidays. He testified he has trouble with ...

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