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Young v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 31, 2016

LUCTORICA YOUNG Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          WILLIAM CONNELLY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Luctorica Young (“Ms. Young” or “Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 401-433, 1381-1383f. The parties consented to a referral to a United States Magistrate Judge for all proceedings and final disposition. See ECF Nos. 2, 7.[1] Pending and ready for resolution are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16). No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted and Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied.

         1. Background.

         On June 5, 2012[2] Ms. Young protectively filed applications for DIB[3] and SSI alleging a disability onset date of June 5, 2012 due to rheumatoid arthritis. R. at 69, 78, 87, 98. Ms. Young's applications were initially denied on August 29, 2012. R. at 108-11, 112-15. Ms. Young requested reconsideration on September 13, 2012, R. at 119, and on February 13, 2013, the applications were denied again. R. at 121-22, 123-24. On February 22, 2013, Ms. Young requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 125-26. On April 1, 2014 an ALJ convened a hearing via video teleconference. R. at 25-36. Ms. Young was represented by counsel. During the hearing the ALJ obtained testimony from Ms. Young and a vocational expert (“VE”). In the April 24, 2014 decision the ALJ found Ms. Young has not been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act, from June 5, 2012 through the date of the decision. R. at 19-20. On June 12, 2014 Ms. Young requested a review of the hearing decision. R. at 7. On August 27, 2015 the Appeals Council denied Ms. Young's request for review, R. at 1-3, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision.

         2. ALJ's Decision.

         The ALJ evaluated Ms. Young's claims for DIB and SSI using the sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2014). Ms. Young bears the burden of demonstrating her disability as to the first four steps. At step five the burden shifts to the Commissioner. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 635 (4th Cir. 2015).

         At step one the ALJ found Ms. Young has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 5, 2012, the alleged onset date. R. at 14. The ALJ concluded at step two that Ms. Young has the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, asthma by history, and obesity. Id. Also at this step the ALJ determined all other impairments alleged or found in the record are non-severe “because they did not exist for a continuous period of twelve months, were responsive to medication, did not require any significant medical treatment, or did not result in any continuous exertional or nonexertional functional limitations.” R. at 15 (citations omitted).

         At step three the ALJ found Ms. Young does not have an impairment or combination of impairments which meets or medically equals a listed impairment. The ALJ specifically considered Listings 1.00 (musculoskeletal system), 3.00 (respiratory system), and 14.00 (immune system disorders). As for Ms. Young's obesity, there is no entry in the Listing of Impairments for this condition. Social Security Ruling 02-1p recognizes the adverse impact of obesity upon co-existing impairments. The ALJ noted obesity may affect the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, “making it harder for the chest and lungs to expand and imposing a greater burden upon the heart.” R. at 15. The combined effect of obesity and arthritis on a weight bearing joint “may [cause] more pain and limitation than might be expected from arthritis alone.” Id. The ALJ considered Ms. Young's obesity by itself and in conjunction with her other impairments. He found the clinical signs and diagnostic findings clearly show Ms. Young's obesity does not meet or medically equal any entries in the Listing of Impairments.

         Next, the ALJ proceeded to determine Ms. Young's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ found Ms. Young has the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a) except,

she should not engage in climbing, work at unprotected heights, or work around dangerous machinery. She can perform no more than occasional stooping or squatting, but no crawling. She can perform no overhead work. She cannot be exposed to excessive amounts of dust, smoke, or other air pollutants. She enjoys gross use of the hands, but cannot engage in repetitive gripping, as would be required in assembly line work.

         R. at 15.

         At step four the ALJ found Ms. Young is capable of performing her past relevant work as a staffing clerk, a sedentary semiskilled position according to the VE. “In comparing the claimant's residual functional capacity with the physical and mental demands of this work, the undersigned finds that the claimant is able to perform it as generally performed.” R. at 18.

         In the alternative the ALJ proceeded to step five. The ALJ considered Ms. Young's age (37 years old on the alleged disability onset date, defined as a younger individual age 18-44), education (high school; able to communicate in English), past work experience (transferability of job skills is not material) and her RFC (sedentary work with various limitations). The ALJ found the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) met its burden of proving that Ms. Young is capable of performing various other jobs[4] that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, relying on the testimony of the VE. R. at 19, 34-35. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Young has not been under a disability, as defined by the Act, from June 5, 2012 through the date of the decision. R. at 19-20.

         3. Standard of Review.

         The role of this court on review is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634; Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence presented, Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (citations omitted), and it must be sufficient to justify a refusal to direct a verdict if the case were before a jury. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). This court cannot try the case de novo or resolve evidentiary conflicts, but rather must affirm a decision supported by substantial evidence. Id.

         4. Discussion.

         Plaintiff alleges two errors by the ALJ which the court considers below.

         A. The ALJ “Erroneously” Assessed Plaintiff's RFC

         1. Challenging Specific Limitations

         Plaintiff asserts, although the ALJ performed the function-by-function assessment in accordance with Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p, “he failed to set forth a narrative discussion setting forth how the evidence supported each conclusion, citing specific medical facts and nonmedical evidence.” ECF No. 15-1 at 5-6. Specifically, Plaintiff contends the ALJ failed to provide explanations to support his findings that she (a) was limited to sedentary work, (b) could not climb, work at unprotected heights, or work around dangerous machinery, (c) could occasionally stoop or squat, but could not crawl[5], (d) could not perform any overhead work, (e) could not be exposed to excessive amount of dust, smoke, or other air pollutants, and (f) could not engage in repetitive gripping. Id. at 6.

         A review of the ALJ's decision reveals evidence supporting the RFC determination. For instance, Ms. Young testified that she cannot lift over her head because the pain is so bad across her shoulder. See R. at 32. The ALJ found her testimony credible and did not rely upon the opinion of Dr. P.H. Moore, State agency doctor at the initial consideration, who did not find such a limitation, see R. at 73-74, 82-83, nor the opinion of Dr. S.K. Najar, State agency doctor at the reconsideration level, who specifically found Ms. Young is unlimited in reaching in any direction, including overhead, see R. at 93, 104. “The opinions of the Disability Determination Services consultants are given only moderate weight, as the undersigned has elected to assess a more restrictive residual functional capacity for the claimant, based on the combination of her impairments, particularly her rheumatoid arthritis and obesity.” R. at 18 (citation omitted). Ms. Young's treating rheumatologist, Kundan A. Karkhanis, opined Ms. Young could never reach including overhead. R. at 344. The ALJ found some credence to this opinion but rejected the severity of the limitation, as reflected by the moderate weight the ALJ assigned to Dr. Karkhanis' opinions.

         Although the State agency doctors at the initial consideration and reconsideration level found Ms. Young has the residual functional capacity to perform work at the light exertional level, the ALJ found Ms. Young has the capacity to perform work at the sedentary exertional level. “The opinions of the Disability Determination Services consultants are given only moderate weight, as the undersigned has elected to assess a more restrictive residual functional capacity for the claimant, based on the combination of her impairments, particularly her rheumatoid arthritis and obesity.” R. at 18 (citation omitted).

         The ALJ accorded weight to the opinion of Dr. Najar, the State Agency doctor at the reconsideration level, who determined Ms. Young can never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds (based on Ms. Young's obesity and inflammatory arthritis) and must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, i.e., machinery, heights, etc. See R. at 92-94, 103-05. Ms. Young's treating rheumatologist also opined she should never work with or around hazardous machinery, and should be exposed only occasionally to environmental irritants such as dust. See R. at 344. Further, unlike Dr. Moore, Dr. Najar considered Ms. Young's asthma by history as well as her inflammatory arthritis and opined she should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and humidity. See R. at 93, 104. Similarly, Dr. Karkhanis, Ms. Young's treating rheumatologist, noted cold and damp conditions will exacerbate her arthritic pain. See R. at 310.

         Dr. Najar opined Ms. Young could occasionally climb ramps and stairs. The ALJ did not distinguish between climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds versus climbing ramps or stairs. He determined she “should not engage in climbing[.]” R. at 15. Ms. Young's treating rheumatologist opined she should never climb stairs or ladders. See R. at 344. During the hearing the following exchange occurred between Ms. Young's counsel and Ms. Young,

Q How about going up and down stairs, have any problems with that?
A Yes.
Q What problems?
A Weakness in the legs.

         R. at 32. Ms. Young testified she is five feet, six inches tall and weighs 303 pounds. R. at 29. In his decision the ALJ noted the medical evidence confirms Ms. Young's history of obesity “with BMIs ranging up to the 50s.” R. at 16 (citation omitted). “Level III, termed ‘extreme' obesity and representing the greatest risk for developing obesity-related impairments, includes BMIs greater than or equal to 40.” SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 34686281, at *2 (Sept. 12, 2002). Considering Ms. Young's extreme obesity, her testimony, and, in addition, considering the opinion of her treating rheumatologist, there is evidence to support the ALJ's determination that Ms. Young should not engage in climbing. With a BMI of 48.9 Ms. Young's excessive weight, coupled with her rheumatoid arthritis, undoubtedly causes some limitations. “Obesity can cause limitation of function. The functions likely to be limited depend on many factors, including where the excess weight is carried. An individual may have limitations in any of the exertional functions such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling. It may also affect ability to do postural functions, such as climbing, balance, stooping, and crouching.” SSR 02-1p, at *6.

         During the hearing the ALJ posed a hypothetical question which limited Ms. Young to occasional crawling. See R. at 34. However in the decision the ALJ determined Ms. Young cannot perform crawling. See R. at 15. These contrasting determinations are supported by the opinions of Dr. Najar (who found Ms. Young could crawl occasionally) and Dr. Karkhanis (who opined Ms. Young should never crawl). The ALJ administratively erred by changing the crawling limitation from occasional during the hearing to no crawling in the decision. See supra n.5. This administrative error does not constitute a reversible error. The undersigned finds the ALJ accorded more weight to Dr. Najar's opinion about this postural limitation than Dr. Karkhanis' opinion.

         Finally the ALJ determined Ms. Young “enjoys gross use of hands, but cannot engage in repetitive gripping, as would be required in assembly line work.” R. at 15. Dr. Najar opined Ms. Young is limited in handling or gross manipulation with both hands but is unlimited in fingering (fine manipulation), see R. at 93, 104. Ms. Young's treating rheumatologist opined she cannot perform gross manipulation, i.e., grasping, twisting, handling, but can occasionally perform jobs requiring fine manipulation, i.e., ...


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