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Rios v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 1, 2016

GELITA G. RIOS, [1] Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT’S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Thomas M. DiGirolamo United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Gelita (or Geltia) Rios 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 her 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. 21) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 22).[2] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision that she is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 22) is GRANTED, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21) is DENIED, and the Commissioner’s final decision is AFFIRMED.

         I

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1960, has a ninth-grade education, and previously worked as a certified nursing assistant. R. at 110-11, 304. Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on April 21, 2011, alleging disability beginning on March 1, 2009, due to stroke, a broken foot, major depressive disorder, and anxiety. R. at 285-95, 304, 308. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s applications initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 155-215. On May 9, 2013, ALJ Melvin G. Olmscheid held a hearing in Baltimore, Maryland, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 101-54. On August 6, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset date of disability of March 1, 2009, through the date of the decision. R. at 84-100. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff’s request for review on February 12, 2015. R. at 1-6, 79-83, 376-80. 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 April 10, 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. Opinion Evidence

         On July 12, 2011, a state agency medical consultant, A.R. Totoonchie, M.D., assessed Plaintiff’s physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”). R. at 160-61, 170-71. Dr. Totoonchie opined that Plaintiff could (1) lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling. R. at 160, 170. In assessing Plaintiff’s exertional limitations, Dr. Totoonchie considered her history of asthma; low back pain radiating to both buttocks; X-rays of her lumbar spine on March 9, 2011, showing minimal degenerative osteoarthritis at L3-L4 and L4-L5; and complaints of swelling in both legs on April 28, 2011. R. at 160, 170. Plaintiff had no postural, manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations, but she was to avoid even moderate exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, poor ventilation, etc., because of her history of asthma. R. at 160-61, 170-71.

         On July 23, 2011, Kevin Budney, Psy.D., conducted a consultative psychological evaluation of Plaintiff that included a mental status examination and a battery of psychological tests. R. at 446-54. Dr. Budney’s diagnoses included adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and chronic depression and a GAF score of 65.[3] R. at 451. Plaintiff “reported life stressors causing her to feel depressed and stressed out. She has taken relatively lower dose of prescribed medications to treat these symptoms since 2007 with great success according to [Plaintiff].” R. at 451. Plaintiff demonstrated intact abstract reasoning and intact memory for recent and past events. R. at 454. She understood and could follow simple instructions independently. R. at 454.

         On August 4, 2011, another state agency consultant, S. Boyer, 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 and 12.06 relating to affective disorders and anxiety-related disorders (R. at 158-59, 168-69). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1, §§ 12.04, 12.06. The consultant opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff’s mental impairments caused her 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 episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 159, 169. The consultant did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 159, 169. The consultant thus assessed Plaintiff’s mental RFC (R. at 161-63, 171-73) and opined that she was moderately limited in her 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. R. at 162-63, 172-73. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 162-63, 172-73. In reaching an opinion about Plaintiff’s mental RFC, the consultant considered the findings and diagnoses from Dr. Budney’s examination. R. at 163, 173.

         On December 7, 2011, another state agency consultant, Nisha Singh, M.D., again assessed Plaintiff’s physical RFC. R. at 183-85, 195-97. Dr. Singh opined that Plaintiff could (1) lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling. R. at 183-84, 195-96. In assessing Plaintiff’s exertional limitations, Dr. Singh also considered her history of asthma; low back pain radiating to both buttocks; X-rays of her lumbar spine on March 9, 2011, showing minimal degenerative osteoarthritis at L3-L4 and L4-L5; and complaints of swelling in both legs on April 28, 2011. R. at 184, 196. Plaintiff had no postural, manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations, but she was to avoid even moderate exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, poor ventilation, etc., because of her history of asthma. R. at 184-85, 196-97.

         On December 13, 2011, another state agency consultant, D. Walcutt, Ph.D., again used the PRT to evaluate Plaintiff’s mental impairments under Listings 12.04 and 12.06. R. at 182-83, 194-95. Dr. Walcutt opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff’s mental impairments caused her 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 episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 182, 194. Dr. Walcutt did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listings. R. at 182, 194. Dr. Walcutt thus assessed Plaintiff’s mental RFC (R. at 185-87, 197-99) and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (3) work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; (4) 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 (5) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. R. at 185-86, 197-98. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 185-86, 197-98. In reaching an opinion about Plaintiff’s mental RFC, Dr. Walcutt also considered the findings and diagnoses from Dr. Budney’s examination. R. at 187, 199.

         On December 18, 2012, Alisa Ingram, M.D., completed a “Medical Report Form 500” on which she noted that she had seen Plaintiff since November 21, 2012, and that Plaintiff presented symptoms of back, hip, and knee pain; depression; anxiety; obsessive-compulsive disorder; and phobias. R. at 624. Dr. Ingram opined that, in an eight-hour workday, Plaintiff could sit for one hour, stand for one hour, reach for one hour, and walk for one-half hour. R. at 624. According to Dr. Ingram, Plaintiff could never climb, bend, squat, or crawl. R. at 624. Plaintiff could lift and carry at most ten pounds. R. at 624. Dr. Ingram also opined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that interfered with her ability to function independently, appropriately, and effectively on a continuous basis. R. at 625. Plaintiff experienced mild limitation in daily living activities, mild limitation in maintaining social functioning, and moderate limitation in maintaining concentration. R. at 625. Dr. Ingram opined that Plaintiff would be limited to one hour of work per day. R. at 625.

         Plaintiff’s treating psychiatrist, Byung Ahn, M.D., had been treating Plaintiff monthly since January 15, 2008. R. at 603. On December 28, 2012, Dr. Ahn opined that Plaintiff’s major depressive disorder and panic disorder caused her difficulty in maintaining concentration and relating to the public and crowds. R. at 603-04. Dr. Ahn opined that Plaintiff’s abilities to follow work rules, to use judgment, and to function independently were good. R. at 606. Her abilities to deal with changes in a routine work setting and to respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations were fair. R. at 606. Plaintiff’s abilities to maintain attention and concentration and to deal with the public and with work stresses were poor. R. at 606. According to Dr. Ahn, Plaintiff’s ability to understand, remember, and carry out simple instructions was good, but her ability to understand, remember, and carry detailed instructions was poor. R. at 607. Her ability to remember locations and work-like procedures was fair. R. at 607. Plaintiff’s ability to make personal-social adjustments was good. R. at 607. On a PRT form, Dr. Ahn opined that, from January 2011 to December 28, 2012, Plaintiff’s mental impairments caused her mild restriction in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and no extended episodes of decompensation. R. at 610-23.

         B. Hearing Testimony

         1. Plaintiff’s Testimony

         The ALJ summarized Plaintiff’s testimony in his decision:

[Plaintiff] testified that she is disabled primarily due to back pain and depression. She said she has a cane but does not use it much. She stated she is able to stand for 30 minutes and walk two city blocks. She said she is able to sit for 30 minutes before experiencing back pain. She stated she is able to lift or carry 10 pounds including a ½ gallon of milk. She indicated that her back pain averages 6 out of 10 on an average day. She said she uses an inhaler for asthma. [Plaintiff] testified that she is afraid of bugs and ...

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