United States District Court, D. Maryland
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
November 19, 2015, Plaintiff Edward Harwart petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his claims for Disability Insurance
Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I
have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment, as well as Mr. Harwart's reply. (ECF Nos. 15,
19, 20). I find that no hearing is necessary. See
Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). 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), 1383(c)(3);
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
Under that standard, I will deny Plaintiff's motion,
grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the
Commissioner's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405. This letter explains my rationale.
Harwart filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on July 31, 2012. (Tr. 272-87). He
alleged a disability onset date of April 1, 2012.
Id. His claims were denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 198-205, 208-11). A hearing was held on
August 4, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 112-39). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Mr. Harwart was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 94-111). The Appeals Council denied Mr.
Harwart's request for review, (Tr. 1-7), so the ALJ's
decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the
found that Mr. Harwart suffered from the severe impairments
of “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),
osteoarthritis and allied disorders, and obesity.” (Tr.
99). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr.
Harwart retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except he can constantly push or pull at the light
exertional level, he can occasionally climb stairs, ramps,
ropes, ladders, or scaffolds, he can frequently balance, he
can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl, and he can
occasionally be exposed to pulmonary irritants or temperature
extremes. Nonexertionally, he can understand, remember, and
carry out short simple instructions and can have frequent
contact with supervisors, coworkers, and the public.
(Tr. 101). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr.
Harwart could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in
the national economy and that, therefore, he was not
disabled. (Tr. 104).
Harwart raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ erroneously assessed his RFC; and (2) that the ALJ
assigned inadequate weight to the opinion of the treating
physician, Dr. Richter. Each argument lacks merit and is
Mr. Harwart contends that the ALJ erroneously assessed his
RFC. Pl. Mot. 16-19; Pl. Rep. 2-3. Specifically, he argues
that the ALJ failed to consider Mr. Harwart's need for a
cane in his RFC assessment. Id. To support his
assertion, Mr. Harwart cites testimony and written statements
noting that he was prescribed a cane and uses it to walk. Pl.
Mot. 17 (citing (Tr. 117, 132, 304, 340, 373, 408, 868)).
Contrary to Mr. Harwart's assertion, the ALJ properly
assessed Mr. Harwart's RFC. Most significantly, the ALJ
noted that “[Mr. Harwart's] testimony and written
statements regarding his symptoms and related limitations are
out of proportion to the medical evidence, ” (Tr. 102),
and “inconsistent with severe pain and other symptoms
precluding all work related activity, ” (Tr. 103). To
be sure, the ALJ noted Mr. Harwart's testimony
“that he has been using a cane for the past six months,
” “has pain in his back [and] knees, ” and
“has to elevate his legs 15 minutes five to six times a
day” due to swollen ankles. (Tr. 102).
However, the ALJ also found that “he could walk on his
heels and toes, his balance and coordination were intact, and
his gait was normal.” Id. In addition, the ALJ
noted that “findings on diagnostic tests were generally
mild, ” id., “[s]traight leg raises were
negative, ” id., and “treatment records
reflect that he denied swelling in his joints and repeatedly
noted that he had no edema in his extremities, ” (Tr.
102-03); see (Tr. 618-22, 637-44, 653-755, 868-99,
913-25). Critically, the ALJ also noted that although Mr.
Harwart “recently presented with a cane,  there is no
evidence that it was prescribed for him or that he requires
it for ambulation.” (Tr. 102). Indeed, Mr.
Harwart's written statements contradict his testimony
that he was ever prescribed a cane. (Tr. 408). Moreover, Mr.
Harwart's written statements concede that he does not
always rely on use of a cane, but rather only “when
[his] knee gives out.” Id. Importantly, this
Court's role is not to reweigh the evidence or to
substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ, but simply to
adjudicate whether the ALJ's decision was supported by
substantial evidence. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d
1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Where conflicting evidence allows
reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is
disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls to the
ALJ. Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 179 (4th Cir.
2001) (quoting Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640
(7th Cir. 1987)). Considering the entirety of the ALJ's
RFC analysis, I find that the ALJ properly assessed Mr.
Harwart's RFC, and supported his findings with
Mr. Harwart argues that the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to
the opinion of the treating physician, Dr. Richter. Pl. Mot.
3-15; Pl. Rep. 4-6. A treating physician's opinion is
given controlling weight when two conditions are met: 1) it
is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical laboratory
diagnostic techniques; and 2) it is consistent with other
substantial evidence in the record. See Craig, 76
F.3d 585 (4th Cir. 1996); see also 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2). However, where a
treating source's opinion is not supported by clinical
evidence or is inconsistent with other substantial evidence,
it should be accorded significantly less weight.
Craig, 76 F.3d at 590. If the ALJ does not give a
treating source's opinion controlling weight, the ALJ
will assign weight after applying several factors, such as,
the length and nature of the treatment relationship, the
degree to which the opinion is supported by the record as a
whole, and any other factors that support or contradict the
opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(6),
416.927(c)(1)-(6). The Commissioner must also consider, and
is entitled to rely on, opinions from non-treating doctors.
See SSR 96-6p, at *3 (“In appropriate
circumstances, opinions from State agency medical and
psychological consultants and other program physicians and
psychologists may be entitled to greater weight than the
opinions of treating or examining sources.”).
to Mr. Harwart's assertion, the ALJ properly evaluated
Dr. Richter's opinion. The ALJ assigned Dr. Richter's
opinion “limited weight” because it was
inconsistent with the medical evidence and unsupported by the
objective record. (Tr. 103-04). Notably, Dr. Richter opined
that Mr. Harwart “should never climb stairs, ladders,
or crouch, and [that] he had limitations with reaching
and…could only occasionally twist due to back pain
syndrome.” (Tr. 103-04). Additionally, Dr. Richter
opined that Mr. Harwart's “symptoms constantly
interfere with attention and concentration and that he would
miss more than four days of work per month.” (Tr. 104).
Accordingly, the ALJ assigned Dr. Richter's opinion
“limited weight” and noted that “[t]he
weight given is reflected in the residual functional capacity
for no more than occasional climbing and other postural
support his assertion, the ALJ found that “Dr.
Richter's opinion…is inconsistent with the
generally normal objective findings on examinations and [Mr.
Harwart's] admitted daily activities[.]” (Tr. 104).
Specifically, the ALJ noted that “neither the objective
findings nor…admitted activities support problems with
reaching or [Dr. Richter's] speculation with regard to
missing work.” In addition, the ALJ noted that Dr.
Richter's “opinion with regard to attention and
concentration is inconsistent with [Mr. Harwart's]
description of his ability to sustain attention, follow
instructions, and complete tasks[.]” (Tr. 104);
see (Tr. 102). Moreover, substantial evidence
elsewhere in the record, including the “generally
normal objective findings on examinations and the generally
mild to moderate findings on diagnostic tests, ”
further belies Dr. Richter's opinion. (Tr. 103).
Furthermore, the ALJ noted the consultative examiner's
determination that “[Mr. Harwart] could perform the
requirements of light work with postural limitations with
bending, stooping, kneeling, and crouching, ” (Tr. 103,
618-22), and cited the State medical consultant's
corroboration of Mr. Harwart's light RFC, (Tr. 104,
172-91). These inconsistencies, in addition to others cited
by the ALJ, provide sufficient justification for the
ALJ's decision to accord only “limited
weight” to Dr. Richter's opinion.
Harwart also contends that the ALJ failed to consider the
factors outlined in 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c)(1)-(6), 416.927(1)-(6), when assigning weight to
Dr. Richter's opinion. The regulations require an ALJ to
assess several factors when determining what weight to assign
to the medical opinions presented. 20 CFR §§
404.1527(d), 416.927(d). These factors include: the examining
relationship between the physician and the claimant; the
treatment relationship between the physician and the
claimant; the specialization of the physician; the
consistency of a medical opinion with the record as a whole;
and the extent to which a medical opinion is supported by
evidence. 20 CFR §§ 404.1527(d)(1)-(5),
416.927(d)(1)-(5). Upon review of the record, I find that the
ALJ cited each factor required under the regulations.
Specifically, the ALJ noted that Dr. Richter examined Mr.
Harwart and performed a physical RFC assessment. (Tr. 103-04,
865-66). The ALJ also adduced Dr. Richter's opinion, and
cited his Medical Source Statement, which contains Dr.
Richter's original notes and denotes his status as Mr.
Harwart's primary physician. Id. The ALJ then
found, as noted above, that Dr. Richter's opinion was
“inconsistent” and unsupported by the objective
evidence. (Tr. 103-04). Considering the entirety of the
ALJ's RFC analysis, I find that the ALJ properly applied
the regulations in assigning weight to Dr. Richter's
opinion, and that his findings are supported by substantial
reasons set forth herein, Mr. Harwart's Motion for
Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) is DENIED and Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 19) is ...