United States District Court, D. Maryland
WILLIAM CONNELLY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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. 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
5, 2012 Ms. Young protectively filed applications
for DIB 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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Standard of Review.
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.
alleges two errors by the ALJ which the court considers
The ALJ “Erroneously” Assessed Plaintiff's
Challenging Specific Limitations
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, (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.
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.
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).
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.
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
Q What problems?
A Weakness in the legs.
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.
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.
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., ...