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Walker v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 15, 2016

CAROLYN W. COLVIN Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant.


          Charles B. Day United States Magistrate Judge.

         Jeffery Walker ("Plaintiff") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner"). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income Benefits ("SSI") under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Plaintiff's Motion") (ECF No. 13) and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment ("Commissioner's Motion") (ECF No. 16). The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and the applicable law. No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion, DENIES Commissioner's Motion, and REMANDS this case for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

         I. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI on February 3, 2009 and February 17, 2009, respectively, alleging disability beginning on July 1, 2008. R. 19. The claims were denied on May 14, 2009. Id. After Plaintiff asked for reconsideration of the denial of benefits, Commissioner again denied Plaintiff's benefits application on October 7, 2009. Id. On September 24, 2010, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Id. On October 28, 2011, Plaintiff appeared at a hearing before an ALJ where he amended the alleged onset date of disability to October 12, 2008. Id. On February 24, 2012 the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not qualify for DIB and SSI. R. 25-26. On February 28, 2014 this Court granted Commissioner's Consent Motion to Remand. R. 590. On May 27, 2014 the Appeals Council remanded the case back to an ALJ with instructions to: (1) update the treatment evidence on Plaintiff's medical condition in accordance with 20 C.F.R. 404.1512-1513 and 416.912-913; (2) give further consideration to the treatment records of Potomac Pain and Rehabilitation Associates, LLC; (3) give further consideration to Plaintiff's maximum functional capacity and provide rationale with specific references to evidence of record in support of assessed limitations; (4) give further consideration to past relevant work Plaintiff could perform with the limitations established by the evidence; and (5) if warranted by the expanded record, obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert to clarify the effect of the assessed limitations on Plaintiff's occupational base. R. 594-95. At the second hearing before an ALJ, Plaintiff did not pursue the amended alleged onset date (Oct. 12, 2008); therefore, the ALJ considered that Plaintiff alleged disability since July 1, 2008. R. 478.

         II. Standard of Review

         On appeal, the Court has the power to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the ALJ "with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2015). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2015) ("The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive."); see also Russell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 440 F.App'x 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). "It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id.; see also Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted) ("It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.").

         The Court does not review the evidence presented below de novo, nor does the Court "determine the weight of the evidence" or "substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence." Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citations omitted). The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Id. (citations omitted). If the ALJ's factual finding, however, "was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law, " then that finding is not binding on the Court. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).

         The Court shall find a person legally disabled under Title II and Title XVI if he is unable "to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a claimant meets this definition:

1) Determine whether the plaintiff is "doing substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i) (2012). If he is doing such activity, he is not disabled. If he is not doing such activity, proceed to step two.
2) Determine whether the plaintiff has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) (2012). If he does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, he is not disabled. If he does meet these requirements, proceed to step three.
3) Determine whether the plaintiff has an impairment that "meets or equals one of [the C.F.R.'s] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) (2012). If he does have such impairment, he is disabled. If he does not, proceed to step four.
4) Determine whether the plaintiff retains the "residual functional capacity" ("RFC") to perform "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) (2012). If he can perform such work, he is not disabled. If he cannot, proceed to step five.
5) Determine whether the plaintiff can perform other work, considering his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v) (2012). If he can perform other work, he is not disabled. If he cannot, he is disabled.

         Plaintiff has the burden to prove that he is disabled at steps one through four, and Commissioner has the burden to prove that Plaintiff is not disabled at step five. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) ...

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