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Jackson v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland.

August 22, 2016

Marie Yvonne Jackson
Commissioner, Social Security Administration


         Dear Counsel:

         On October 22, 2015, Plaintiff, Marie Yvonne Jackson, petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration’s final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (ECF No. 1.) I have considered the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment and Ms. Jackson’s reply memorandum. (ECF Nos. 16, 19, 20.) I find that no hearing is necessary. 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. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Ms. Jackson’s motion, grant the Commissioner’s motion, and affirm the Commissioner’s judgment. This letter explains my rationale.

         Ms. Jackson protectively filed her DIB claim on March 13, 2012. (Tr. 61, 139-45.) She alleged a disability onset date of May 1, 2005. (Tr. 139.) Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 62-76.) A hearing was held on December 12, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 28-55.) Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Jackson was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 12-27.) The Appeals Council denied Ms. Jackson’s request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ’s decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

         In evaluating Social Security claims, the agency (here through the ALJ) engages in a five-step sequential evaluation. If at any step of the sequential evaluation the ALJ can find that the claimant is or is not disabled, he makes his determination at that step and does not proceed to the next step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step two of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ evaluates the medical severity of a claimant’s impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If a claimant does not have “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, ”[1] the ALJ will find the claimant not disabled. Id. Social Security regulations define a non-severe impairment as one that “does not significantly limit [a claimant’s] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). It goes on to define “basic work activities” as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs, ” including:

(1) Physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling;
(2) Capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking;
(3) Understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions;
(4) Use of judgment;
(5) Responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations; and
(6) Dealing with changes in a routine work setting.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(b). In this case, the ALJ found that, through her date last insured, [2] Ms. Jackson suffered from the medically determinable impairments of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), back disorder, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, gastroesophageal reflux disease, stress urinary incontinence, obesity, affective disorder, and anxiety. (Tr. 17.) However, the ALJ concluded that none of Ms. Jackson’s medically determinable impairments significantly limited her ability to perform basic work-related activities for 12 consecutive months. Accordingly, he determined that none of her impairments were “severe, ” and that she was not disabled. (Tr. 18-23.)

         On appeal, Ms. Jackson raises three primary arguments. First, she argues that the ALJ failed to consider whether there are explanations for the limited nature of her medical treatment that do not undermine the severity of her symptoms. Second, she claims that the ALJ afforded improper consideration to her treating physician’s retrospective opinion as to the onset date of her alleged disability. Finally, she argues that the ALJ improperly considered the medical evidence of her mental impairments.

         Ms. Jackson first claims that, when considering her medical treatment history, the ALJ improperly drew inferences about her symptoms and their functional effects from the fact that she treated only with her general practitioner, Dr. Shakil, and did not receive treatment for either her physical or mental impairments from relevant specialists. In particular, Ms. Jackson takes issue with the ALJ’s statements that “there is no evidence that the claimant treated with a breathing or pulmonary specialist, ” in reference to her COPD, that, with regard to her back impairment, “[t]he lack of more aggressive treatment or even a referral to a specialist for her back problems suggested the symptoms and limitations were not as severe as alleged, ” and that she “received only basic care through her general practitioner” for her mental impairments. (See Tr. 19-20.) Ms. Jackson contends that the ALJ’s inferences were impermissible because he failed to consider her lack of medical insurance as an explanation for her failure to seek more aggressive, specialized treatment. Ms. Jackson contends that the ALJ’s analysis was thus contrary to Social Security Ruling 69-7p, which provides that the ALJ

must not draw any inferences about an individual's symptoms and their functional effects from a failure to seek or pursue regular medical treatment without first considering any explanations that the individual may provide, or other information in the case record, that may explain ...

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