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Scott v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 7, 2016

Hombre Scott
Carolyn Colvin;

         Dear Counsel:

         On December 23, 2015, Plaintiff Hombre Scott petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his claims for Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 17, 18). 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 Plaintiffs motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Mr. Scott filed claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on June 13, 2012. (Tr. 61). He alleged a disability onset date of April 11, 2012. Id. His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 95-100). A hearing was held on July 1, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 25-53). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Scott was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 9-24). The Appeals Council denied Mr. Scott's request for review, (Tr. 1-5), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

         The ALJ found that Mr. Scott suffered from the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease and neuropathy. (Tr. 14). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Scott retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") "to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of stairs or ramps; occasional stooping, crouching, crawling or kneeling; and no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights." (Tr. 16). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined that Mr. Scott could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and that, therefore, he was not disabled. (Tr. 19-20).

         Mr. Scott raises four primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred by not finding Mr. Scott's "major depression" to be a severe impairment; (2) that the ALJ failed to determine that Mr. Scott met a Medical Listing; (3) that the ALJ failed to make a function-by-function assessment of mental RFC consistent with SSR 96-8p; and (4) that the ALJ improperly weighed the opinion of Mr. Scott's treating physician. PL's Mot. 21-22. Each argument lacks merit and is addressed below.

         I. Severe Impairment Issue

         Mr. Scott argues that the ALJ erred by not determining that his "major depression" constitutes a severe impairment. PL's Mot. 12-13. An impairment is considered "severe" if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The claimant bears the burden of proving that his impairment is severe. See Johnson v. Astrue, 2012 WL 203397, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 23, 2012) (citing Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995)). Here, the ALJ thoroughly considered Mr. Scott's depression at step two. (Tr. 14-15). The ALJ noted that Mr. Scott demonstrated no mental impairments in activities of daily living, has had no episodes of decompensation, and suffers only mild difficulties in the areas of social functioning and concentration, persistence or pace. (Tr. 15). The ALJ cited to evidence in the record to support her conclusions regarding the paragraph B criteria. Id. The ALJ also clearly stated the basis of her finding that Mr. Scott's depression was non-severe - namely, because "mild" limitations in two of the four functional areas did not limit Mr. Scott's ability to work. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ fairly concluded that the impairment had no more than a de minimis effect on Mr. Scott's ability to work. Id. Moreover, even if the ALJ had erred in her evaluation of Mr. Scott's depression at step two, such error would be harmless. Because Mr. Scott made the threshold showing that his degenerative disc disease and neuropathy constituted severe impairments, the ALJ continued with the sequential evaluation process and properly considered all of the impairments, both severe and non-severe, that significantly impacted Mr. Scott's ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. Any step two error, then, does not necessitate remand.

         II. Medical Listing Issue

         Mr. Scott suggests that the ALJ's medical listing analysis violated the Fourth Circuit's mandate in Fox v. Colvin, 632 Fed.App'x. 750 (4th Cir. 2015). PL's Mot. 14-16. Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether a claimant's impairments meet or medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Listings describe each of the major body system impairments that the Agency "considers] to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). In Fox, the Fourth Circuit held that the ALJ's medical listing analysis was deficient because it consisted of conclusory statements and did not include "any 'specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.'" Id. at 754 (quoting Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291-92 (4th Cir. 2013)). That is, the ALJ did not apply any findings or medical evidence to the identified disability listings and offered nothing to reveal why he was making his decision. Radford, 734 F.3d at 295. Thus, Fox requires that an ALJ provide express analysis, with factual support, to conclude that a medical listing has not been met at step three. The Fourth Circuit also rejected the notion that failure to engage in meaningful analysis at step three could constitute harmless error where the evidence of record otherwise demonstrated that the claimant did not meet a listing. Fox, 632 Fed.App'x. at 755.

         Rather, the Fox Court emphasized that it is not this Court's role to "engage[ ] in an analysis that the ALJ should have done in the first instance, " or "to speculate as to how the ALJ applied the law to its findings or to hypothesize the ALJ's justifications that would perhaps find support in the record." Id. The Court noted that it could not conduct a meaningful review "when there is nothing on which to base a review." Id.

         In the instant case, regarding her findings at step three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ stated, in relevant part:

Specifically, I have considered listing 1.04 related to disorders of the spine or the spinal cord. The claimant's medical evidence of record indicates that, despite the presence of degenerative disc disease, the claimant does not have evidence of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis present, and therefore does not meet the criteria of this listing

(Tr. 15). Medical Listing 1.04 is defined as, "Disorders of the spine ... resulting in compromise of a nerve root ... or the spinal cord. With A. Evidence of nerve root compression ... OR B. Spinal arachnoiditis ... OR C. Lumbar spinal stenosis. 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Section 1.04. In order to meet a Medical Listing, "every element of the listing must be satisfied." Huntington v. Apfel, 101 F.Supp.2d 384, 391 (D. Md. 2000) (citing Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 531 (1990)). The ALJ's analysis of Medical Listing 1.04 does not run afoul of Fox. The ALJ expressly considered the listing's legal requirements of nerve root compression, spinal arachnoiditis, or lumbar spinal stenosis, applied these requirements to the record evidence, and concluded that Mr. Scott had not supplied evidence satisfying the criteria of this listing.

         Furthermore, contrary to Mr. Scott's allegation that the ALJ "failed to address the [June, 2014] MRI of Mr. Scott's lumbar spine in Exhibits 15F and 19F, " the ALJ both considered and cited to Exhibit 15F, which is an exact duplicate of Exhibit 19F. PL's Mot. 14; (Tr. 17, 424, 435). Nor do Exhibits 15F and 19F contain any findings that refute the ALJ's conclusion with respect to Listing 1.04. Mr. Scott's suggestion that the ALJ did not mention the October, 2013 x-rays of his lumbar spine and thoracic spine is also incorrect. PL's Mot. 14. The ALJ made several references to the information contained at Exhibit 13F, including Mr. Scott's thoracic spine examination, and noted its results were "within normal limits other than questionable left-sided trachea compression." (Tr. 17, 393-422). Mr. Scott also posits that the ALJ failed to discuss the opinion of Cynthia Corbin, CRNP, regarding whether Mr. Scott met the criteria of Medical Listing 1.04A. PL's Mot. 14. However, the ALJ expressly discusses this point and ascribed little weight ...

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