United States District Court, D. Maryland
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION
FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge
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.
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).
October 13 2015. Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court
seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final
decision. 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
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
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).
Determinations and Burden of Proof
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),
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. §§
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),
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),
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).
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),
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.
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. 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
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.
The ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinion
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)).
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).
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 ...