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Bogley v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 7, 2016

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


          A. David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge

         On October 13, 2015. John Jacob Bogley ("Plaintiff) petitioned this court to review the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 ("the Complaint"). After consideration of the Complaint and each parties cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 14, 15, 16), the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2014). In addition, for the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) is GRANTED, and the decision of the Social Security Administration is AFFIRMED.

         Case Background

         On September 15, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. In both claims. Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on January 25. 2011. Both claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on January 5, 2012 and June 25, 2012, respectively. Subsequently, on July 9, 2012, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. On December 11, 2013, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge. Following that hearing, on March 10, 2014, the ALJ rendered a decision denying Plaintiffs claims for DIB and SSI. See ECF No. 11. Thereafter, on May 1, 2014. Plaintiff requested review of the decision, and on August 17, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. Thus, the decision rendered by the ALJ at the hearing became the final decision of the Commissioner. See C.F.R. § 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On October 13 2015. Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.[1] On May 19, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. On July 19, 2016, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. On August 7, 2016. Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgement. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, and Plaintiff s Reply.

         Standard of Review

         "This Court is authorized to review the Commissioner's denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g)." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Court does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence. Instead, the Court's review of an SSA decision is deferential, as "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996) ("The duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court."); see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986) ("We do not conduct a de novo review of the evidence, and the Secretary's finding of non-disability is to be upheld, even if the court disagrees, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence."). Therefore, the issue before the reviewing court "is not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [Plaintiff] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) ("Under the Social Security Act, [a reviewing court] must uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.").

         Substantial evidence means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (2012). It "consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d at 638. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ]." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court shall determine whether the ALJ has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to that evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         In order to be eligible for DIB, a claimant must establish that he is under disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The term "disability, " for purposes of the Social Security Act, is defined as the "[i]nability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(lXA), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. A claimant shall be determined to be under disability where "his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such a severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).The evaluation process is sequential, meaning that, "[i]f at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the [Commissioner] will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one, the Commissioner considers the claimant's work activity to determine if the claimant is engaged in "'substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b).

         At step two, the Commissioner considers whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment [or combination of impairments] that meets the duration requirement [.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(H), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments, then me claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(h), 404.1520(c), 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c).

         At step three, the Commissioner considers the medical severity of the impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).

         At step four, the Commissioner will assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") to determine the claimant's ability to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(e). 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(e).

         At steps one through four of the evaluation, the claimant has the burden of proof. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Bowen v. Yuckert. 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); see also Radford, 734 F.3d at 291. At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove: (1) that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC (as determined at step four), and; (2) that such alternative work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); See Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472-73 (4th Cir. 2012); See also Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). If the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g)(1), 404.1560(c), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot perform other work, then the claimant is disabled. Id.

         ALJ Determination

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation and found, at step one. that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of January 25, 2011. ECF No. 11 at 27. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine requiring fusion with instrumentation at the L4-S1 vertebrae, post-laminectomy syndrome, obesity, depression/mood disorder, and anxiety/post-traumatic stress disorder. Id. At step three, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt P, App. 1. Id. at 28. At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiffs residual functional capacity and concluded that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work.[2] However, at step five, the ALJ determined that, "[considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform." Id. at 34. Thus, the ALJ concluded that, "[a] finding of 'not disabled' is therefore appropriate under the framework of the above-cited rule [Medical-Vocational Rule 202.21]." Id.

         Plaintiff's Arguments Raised

         In the present case, the ALJ found at step four of the sequential evaluation that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined by 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) with specific assigned limitations. Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred when he: (1) failed to consider the findings and opinions of Dr. McAfee, Dr. Seligman. the State-Agency Physician. Mr. Martinez, Dr. DiCrisio, Mr. Melberg, Ms. Kradel, and Dr. Cohen; and (2) improperly relied on the testimony of a vocational expert who did not have the qualifications required by the Agency. In addition. Plaintiff contends that the Appeals Council erred in failing to consider Dr. McAfee's June 2014 letter in its decision to deny review of Plaintiff s claim.


         A. The ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion evidence.

         Section 404.1527 of the regulations governs an ALJ's consideration of the medical opinion given by a treating source. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d). That regulation defines "medical opinions" as "statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [the] impairment(s), including ... what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment(s)...." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2). The regulations further explain that "acceptable medical sources" are licensed physicians, licensed or certified psychologists, licensed optometrists, licensed podiatrists, and qualified speech-language pathologists. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1513(a)(1)-(5). Finally, the regulations provide that a medical source statement about what a claimant can still do despite his or her impairment(s) should be "based on the acceptable medical source's findings" that are supported by a combination of medical history, clinical findings, laboratory findings, diagnoses, and prognoses. See § 404.1513(b); see also SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, *4 ("Medical source statements are medical opinions submitted by acceptable medical sources.") (citing § 404.1513(a) and 20 C.F.R. 416.913(a)).

         Courts evaluate and weigh medical opinions pursuant to the following non-exclusive list: (1) whether the physician has examined the applicant, (2) the treatment relationship between the physician and the applicant, (3) the supportability of the physician's opinion, (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record, and (5) whether the physician is a specialist. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 (2005). Under the treating physician rule, an ALJ must generally give more weight to a treating physician's opinion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). However, where a treating physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or is inconsistent with other substantial evidence it should be afforded significantly less weight. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585. 590 (4th Cir. 1996) (superseded by statute on other grounds). In such a circumstance, "the ALJ holds the discretion to give less weight to the testimony of a treating physician in the face of persuasive contrary evidence." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171. 178 (4th Cir. 2001).

         If a treating source's opinion is not given controlling weight, the ALJ must consider the following factors in deciding the appropriate weight to give the treating physician's opinion: (1) length and frequency of treatment relationship; (2) nature and extent of treatment: (3) supportability, consistency, specialization, and (4) any other factors which tend to support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(l-6). An ALJ need not apply these factors in a mechanical fashion, so long as the ALJ articulates the reasoning behind the weight accorded to the opinion. Carter v. Astrue, 2011 WL 3273060, at 6 (D. Md. July 27, 2011). In addition, the ALJ's "decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to ...

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