United States District Court, D. Maryland
December 14, 2015, Plaintiff Todd Fahringer petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment, as well as Mr.
Fahringer's reply. (ECF Nos. 15, 20, 21). 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 both motions, reverse the judgment of the Commissioner,
and remand the case to the Commissioner for further analysis
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This
letter explains my rationale.
Fahringer filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB") on July 10, 2012. (Tr. 139-40). He alleged
a disability onset date of July 28, 2010. Id. His
claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
79-86, 88-96). A hearing was held on June 24, 2014, before an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 28-78).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Fahringer
was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security
Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 9-27). The Appeals
Council denied Mr. Fahringer's request for review, (Tr.
1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final,
reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Fahringer suffered from the severe impairments
of "obesity, degenerative disc disease status/post fall
through a barn loft floor, chest wall hernia, and chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)." (Tr. 15). Despite
these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Fahringer
retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC")
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he
can perform all postural activities occasionally, but there
should be no climbing of a ladder, rope, or scaffold.
Additionally, he should avoid concentrated exposure to
temperature extremes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation,
fumes, vibration, and hazards (heights and moving machinery).
(Tr. 16). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Mr.
Fahringer could perform jobs existing in significant numbers
in the national economy and that, therefore, he was not
disabled. (Tr. 22-23).
Fahringer raises three primary arguments on appeal: (1) that
the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to the opinions of the
treating physicians, Drs. Hsu and Aaron; (2) that the ALJ
erred in evaluating his credibility; and (3) that the ALJ
erroneously assessed his RFC. I conclude that the ALJ
erroneously assessed Mr. Fahringer's RFC. Remand is
therefore appropriate. In so holding, I express no opinion
regarding whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Mr.
Fahringer is not disabled is correct or incorrect.
with the unsuccessful arguments, Mr. Fahringer first argues
that the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to the opinion of his
treating physicians, Drs. Hsu and Aaron. PI. Mot. 5-21; PI.
Rep. 1-3. 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). 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). The ALJ 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. Fahringer's assertion, the ALJ properly evaluated
the opinions of Drs. Hsu and Aaron. Beginning with the
former, Dr. Hsu opined that Mr. Fahringer's "pain is
severe and interferes with his ability to concentrate on job
tasks, sleep, and activities of daily living." (Tr. 19).
Additionally, Dr. Hsu opined that Mr. Fahringer "can sit
up to 2 hours, stand up to 2 hours, and walk less than an
hour in an 8-hour work day, " as well as
"frequently lift and carry 5 pounds and occasionally
lift and carry 10 pounds, " and "occasionally reach
above shoulder level, but cannot do any bending, squatting,
crawling, stooping, or climbing." (Tr. 20). Moreover,
Dr. Hsu opined that Mr. Fahringer "is moderately limited
in his ability to drive automotive equipment and should not
be exposed to unprotected heights, moving machinery, marked
changes in temperature and humidity, and dust, fumes, and
gases." Id. Accordingly, the ALJ assigned
"some weight" to Dr. Hsu's opinion on Mr.
Fahringer's pain and concentration, (Tr. 19),
"little weight" to his opinion on Mr.
Fahringer's physical limitations,  (Tr. 20), and
"[g]reat weight.. .to the remainder of the opinion,
assigned "some weight" and "little
weight" to portions of Dr. Hsu's opinion because
they were inconsistent with the medical evidence and
unsupported by the objective record. (Tr. 19-20). Regarding Dr.
Hsu's opinion as to Mr. Fahringer's pain and
concentration, the ALJ found that "the evidence
indicates that pain does not interfere with [Mr.
Fahringer's] ability to perform activities of daily
living." (Tr. 19). The ALJ also cited medical records
indicating that Mr. Fahringer's symptoms are
"seldom" severe enough to interfere with attention
and concentration, (Tr. 19, 604). Moreover, substantial
evidence elsewhere in the record, including the fact that Mr.
Fahringer "did not seem to be in pain...at any time
during the hearing, " (Tr. 19), had "no perceivable
memory or concentration problems, " id, and had
"partially relieved" his pain with medication, (Tr.
19, 597-633), further belies Dr. Hsu's opinion. Regarding
Dr. Hsu's opinion as to Mr. Fahringer's physical
limitations, the ALJ found that "the evidence of record,
including mild objective test findings and normal physical
examination findings, suggest that [Mr. Fahringer] is not as
limited as Dr. Hsu opined." (Tr. 20), see (Tr.
19, 199-413, 459-90, 570-96, 630-33, 654-69, 693-97). Most
significantly, the ALJ noted that multiple medical
consultants contradicted Dr. Hsu's opinion and found that
Mr. Fahringer's physical limitations were not disabling.
(Tr. 21, 79-86, 88-96, 698-705). For example, Dr. Kennedy,
the consultative examiner, opined that "[Mr. Fahringer]
can sit for a total of 8 hours, stand for a total of 6 hours,
and walk for a total of 8 hours in an 8-hour work day, "
and further opined that he "can continuously climb
stairs and ramps, balance, stoop, and kneel, frequently
crouch, and occasionally climb ladders or scaffolds and
crawl." (Tr. 21, 698-705). In addition, the medical
consultant at the initial level "opined that [Mr.
Fahringer] can perform work at the medium exertional level
and can perform all postural activities frequently, except
for climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, which he can only
do occasionally." (Tr. 21, 79-86). Moreover, the State
medical consultant at the reconsideration level affirmed the
opinion. (Tr. 21, 88-96). Accordingly, the ALJ
found that the "medical evidence of record establishes
that [Mr. Fahringer] is limited by the combined effects of
his physical impairments, but not to the degree
alleged." (Tr. 21). These inconsistencies, in addition
to others cited by the ALJ, provide sufficient justification
for the ALJ's decision to accord less weight to the
aforementioned portions of Dr. Hsu's opinion.
also properly evaluated Dr. Aaron's opinion. Notably, Dr.
Aaron opined that Mr. Fahringer "can sit for 1 hours
(sic), stand for 2 hours, and walk for 1 hour in an 8 hour
work day, " as well as "occasionally squat, crawl,
and reach above shoulder length and never bend, climb, or
stoop." (Tr. 20). Additionally, Dr. Aaron opined that
Mr. Fahringer "is restricted from exposure to dust,
fumes and gases, but not to heights, moving machinery, marked
changes in temperature of humidity, or moving automotive
equipment." (Tr. 21, 597-629). Moreover, he opined that
Mr. Fahringer's "pain interferes with his ability to
concentrate on job tasks, but not his activities of daily
living, " (Tr. 20, 597-629), and that he "is a
trained mechanic and would not be able to return to work in
that capacity, " (Tr. 21, 597-629, 634-53). Accordingly,
the ALJ assigned "little weight" to Dr. Aaron's
opinion on Mr. Fahringer's physical limitations,
(Tr. 20), "little weight" to the restriction on
"dust, fumes and gases, " (Tr. 21), and
"[g]reat weight.. .to the remainder of the opinion,
" (Tr. 20).
assigned "little weight" to portions of Dr.
Aaron's opinion because they were inconsistent with the
medical evidence and unsupported by the objective record.
(Tr. 20-21). Regarding Mr. Fahringer's physical
limitations, the ALJ discredited Dr. Aaron's findings and
cited, as noted above, "mild objective test findings and
essentially normal physical examination findings." (Tr.
20). Regarding Mr. Fahringer's exposure restrictions, the
ALJ noted "normal chest and lung examination
findings" and cited "a pulmonary function test that
indicates that [Mr. Fahringer's] COPD is improving."
(Tr. 21, 252-413, 553-58, 630-33, 654-69, 686-97). Indeed,
the ALJ noted that pulmonary function tests in March 2013 and
June 2014 were normal, the latter of which "showed
improved findings without lung volumes showing restrictive
defect due to obesity." (Tr. 18, 691). In addition, the
ALJ noted Mr. Fahringer's COPD Questionnaire, which
further undercut the severity of his pulmonary symptoms and
found that his "chest tightness, bronchitis, and
coughing are seldom severe enough to interfere with his
attention and concentration." (Tr. 20). Moreover, the
ALJ noted the consultative examiners' determinations that
"[Mr. Fahringer] could perform work at the medium
exertional level, " (Tr. 21, 1A), and "require[d]
no additional environmental limitations, " (Tr. 21,
18F). Regardless, the ALJ specifically restricted Mr.
Fahringer's RFC to avoid "concentrated exposure to
odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and fumes" in
order to accommodate his COPD symptoms. (Tr. 18, 21).
Accordingly, the ALJ properly evaluated Dr. Aaron's
opinion and supported her conclusion with substantial
evidence. Remand on this basis is therefore unwarranted.
Fahringer also contends that the ALJ failed to consider the
factors outlined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6), when
assigning weight to Dr. Aaron's opinion. Specifically,
Mr. Fahringer contends that the ALJ failed to note "the
fact that Dr. Aaron is a treating
specialist'' PI. Mot. 8 (emphasis in
original). The regulations require an ALJ to assess several
factors when determining what weight to assign to the medical
opinions presented. § 404.1527(c)(1)-(6). These factors
include: the examining relationship between the physician and
the claimant; the treatment relationship between the
physician and the claimant; the consistency of a medical
opinion with the record as a whole; the extent to which a
medical opinion is supported by evidence; and, pertinent to
this case, the specialization of the physician. Id.
Upon review of the record, I find that the ALJ properly cited
Dr. Aaron's specialization. Most significantly, the ALJ
explicitly stated that Dr. Aaron was Mr. Fahringer's
"pulmonologist, " as opposed to his primary care
physician or general practitioner. The ALJ also cited Dr.
Aaron's treatment notes, "Physical Capacities
Evaluation Form, " "Pain Questionnaire, "
"Fatigue Questionnaire, " and "COPD
Questionnaire, " which denote Dr. Aaron's status as
a pulmonary specialist. (Tr. 20-21), see (Tr.
597-629, 670-92). Moreover, although Mr. Fahringer does not
contest the remaining factors under §
404.1527(c)(1)-(6), I note that the ALJ also adduced Dr.
Aaron's opinion, noted his examining relationship with
Mr. Fahringer, and found, as noted above, that Dr.
Aaron's conclusions were inconsistent and unsupported by
the record evidence. (Tr. 20-21). Considering the entirety of
the ALJ's RFC analysis, I find that the ALJ properly
applied the regulations in assigning weight to Dr.
Aaron's opinion, and that her findings are supported by
Mr. Fahringer argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate
his credibility. In particular, he believes the ALJ erred by
failing to consider his work history when evaluating his
credibility. PI. Mot. 21. Although Mr. Fahringer correctly
contends that an excellent work record may support a
Plaintiffs credibility assessment, it is not the only or the
determinative factor. Instead, "[i]n determining the
credibility of the individual's statements, the
adjudicator must consider the entire case record, including
the objective medical evidence, the individual's own
statements about symptoms, statements and other information
provided by treating or examining physicians...and any other
relevant evidence in the case record." SSR 96-7P, 1996
WL 374186, at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). Although the ALJ
noted that "[Mr. Fahringer's] testimony was
generally credible, " the ALJ found that his allegations
and statements about his symptoms were unsupported or
contradicted by the record evidence. Specifically, the ALJ
found that "[Mr. Fahringer's] presentation during
the hearing, as well as the medical evidence, suggests that
he is not as limited as he alleges." (Tr. 19). For
example, the ALJ noted that despite allegations of severe
pain, Mr. Fahringer "ambulated normally into and out of
the hearing room, got into and out his seat normally, and sat
comfortably throughout the nearly hour-long hearing."
Id. In addition, the ALJ observed that "he did
not seem to be in pain or have any shortness of breath at any
time during the hearing, " "had a normal affect,
" and "no perceivable memory or concentration
problems." Id. The ALJ also assessed Mr.
Fahringer's credibility based on the medical record,
including "mild objective back test findings,
essentially normal physical examination findings, " and
"pulmonary function tests" indicating improved
COPD. Id. Moreover, the consultative examiners'
determination that Mr. Fahringer "can perform work at
the medium exertional level, " "can perform all
postural activities frequently, " and "requires no
additional environmental limitations, " further belies
the severity ...