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Willett v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 5, 2016

David W. Willett
v.
Carolyn W. Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

         Dear Counsel:

         On July 1, 2015, the Plaintiff, David Willett ("Mr. Willett"), petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). (ECF No. 1.) The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 15 & 16.) These motions have been referred to the undersigned with the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Rule 301. (ECF Nos. 4 & 9.) I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. This Court must uphold the decision of the agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the agency employed the proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). Following its review, this Court may affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner, with or without a remand. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991). Under that standard, I will grant the Acting Commissioner's motion and deny the Plaintiff's motion. This letter explains my rationale.

         Mr. Willett filed his application for DIB on July 24, 2012. (Tr. 43-52.) He alleged disability beginning on February 1, 2007. (Tr. 175-76.) The claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 115-37.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on March 25, 2014. (Tr. 73-93.) On April 24, 2014, the ALJ determined that Mr. Willett was not disabled under the Social Security Act before June 30, 2012, but that he became disabled under the Social Security Act as of June 30, 2012. (Tr. 28-43.) On June 23, 2014, the Appeals Council notified Mr. Willett that it believed the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence, and that it "plan[ned] to make a decision [that Mr. Willett] was not disabled through June 30, 2012." (Tr. 171.) Upon review of additional evidence submitted by Mr. Willett, the Appeals Council issued a new decision on March 17, 2015. (Tr. 6-10.) In this decision, the Appeals Council found that Mr. Willett was not disabled under the Social Security Act at any time through June 30, 2012, Mr. Willett's date last insured. The decision of the Appeals Council dated March 17, 2015 is the final, reviewable decision of the agency. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Because the Appeals Council adopted many of the factual findings of the ALJ, I will first discuss the ALJ's findings. The ALJ evaluated Mr. Willett's claim for benefits using the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Willett was not engaged in substantial gainful activity, and had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 17, 2010. (Tr. 35.) At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Willett suffered from the severe impairments of "cervical radiculopathy, lumbar radiculopathy, and carpal tunnel syndrome." (Id.) Also at step two, the ALJ found that beginning on June 30, 2012, Mr. Willett suffered from the additional severe impairment of diabetic neuropathy. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Willett's impairments, separately and in combination, failed to meet or equal in severity any listed impairment as set forth in 20 C.F.R., Chapter III, Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 ("Listings") (Tr. 36.) The ALJ discussed Mr. Willett's RFC for two time periods: the period before June 30, 2012 and the period beginning June 30, 2012. (Tr. 36-40.)

         Prior to June 30, 2012, the ALJ determined that Mr. Willett retained the RFC

to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except he can perform no more than occasional bending, stooping, kneeling, and squatting. He must avoid ladders and scaffolding. He can perform no more than occasional gripping and feeling with either hand.

(Tr. 36.)

         Beginning on June 30, 2012, however, the ALJ determined that Mr. Willett's RFC was more limited:

Beginning on June 30, 2012, the claimant has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a), except he can perform no more than occasional bending, stooping, kneeling, and squatting. He must avoid ladders and scaffolding. He can perform no more than occasional gripping and feeling with either hand. In addition, he requires frequent unscheduled breaks, resulting in him being off task greater than 15% of the workday.

(Tr. 39.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Mr. Willett has been unable to perform any past relevant work since June 17, 2010. (Tr. 40.) At step five, the ALJ determined that prior to June 30, 2012, considering Mr. Willett's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he could have performed. (Tr. 41.) Beginning on June 30, 2012, however, the ALJ found that there were no jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he could perform because, from that date onward, he would require "frequent unscheduled breaks, resulting in him being off task greater than 15% of the workday." (Tr. 39, 42.)

         The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's "statements regarding . . . the issues in the case, and the evidentiary facts, " but did not adopt the "findings or conclusions regarding whether the claimant is disabled." (Tr. 18-23.) Specifically, the Appeals Council agreed with the ALJ's findings under steps 1, 2, 3, and 4 of the sequential evaluation, but rejected the finding that beginning on June 30, 2012, there were no jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Mr. Willett could perform. (Id.)

         The parties do not dispute the ALJ's findings related to the time period leading up to June 30, 2012, which were adopted by the Appeals Council. The only issue in dispute is whether the Appeals Council was correct to conclude that Mr. Willett's medical condition did not significantly deteriorate on or before June 30, 2012.

         The Appeals Council found that the ALJ's RFC restriction that, beginning on June 30, 2012, Mr. Willett "required frequent unscheduled breaks, which result[] in him being off task greater than 15 percent of the workday" is not supported by substantial evidence. (Tr. 19.) In considering the ALJ's finding that Mr. Willett would be off task greater than 15 percent of the workday beginning on June 30, 2012, the Appeals Council discussed the objective medical evidence of record. First, the Appeals Council summarized a neurological treatment note dated July 13, 2012, approximately two weeks after the date upon which Mr. Willett was deemed by the ALJ to have become disabled. (Tr. 19.) In this treatment note, Mr. Willett's treating physician, Michael K. Greenberg, M.D., stated that he had not seen Mr. Willett for about one year prior to the date of the examination. (Tr. 303.) Dr. Greenberg noted that Mr. Willett "complain[ed] of numbness of hands and feet" and that his legs, hands, and feet "demonstrate[d] [decreased] light touch sensation." (Tr. 303-4.) Dr. Greenberg's impression was that Mr. Willett suffered from polyneuropathy in diabetes. (Id.) Notably, Dr. Greenberg's treatment note "does not indicate significantly decreased sensation on or before" June 30, 2012. (Tr. 19.) The Appeals Council also noted that "further review of the record just before and shortly after [June 30, 2012] did not reveal any significant changes on examination that could be related back to the period through June 30, 2012." (Id.)

         The Appeals Council also considered a treatment note from an examination conducted by Dr. Greenberg on October 1, 2012. (Tr. 19, 373-75.) At this examination "for follow-up of diabetic neuropathy, " Dr. Greenberg found that overall Mr. Willett's condition had improved. (Tr. 373.) Dr. Greenberg opined that Mr. Willett's medication had helped to control Mr. Willett's neuropathy. (Id.) The Appeals Council also considered the new medical evidence submitted by Mr. Willett in response to its June 23, 2014 notice. (Id.) It found that this evidence was not material to the question of whether Mr. Willett was disabled ...


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