United States District Court, D. Maryland
Sheila K. Grimm
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
November 6, 2015, Plaintiff Sheila K. Grimm petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits ("DIB"). (ECF No. 1). I have considered
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Ms.
Grimm's reply. (ECF Nos. 16, 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 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.
Grimm filed her claim on March 28, 2012, originally alleging
a disability onset date of February 29, 2012. (Tr. 154-61).
She subsequently amended her alleged onset date to her
fiftieth birthday, March 16, 2013. (Tr. 37). Her claim was
denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 57-65, 67-76).
A hearing was held on July 29, 2014, before an Administrative
Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 35-56). Following the
hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Grimm was not disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the
relevant time frame. (Tr. 17-34). The Appeals Council
("AC") denied Ms. Grimm's request for review,
(Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final,
reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Grimm suffered from the severe impairments of
obesity and degenerative disc disease/osteoarthritis. (Tr.
22). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Grimm retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except
the claimant can constantly push or pull at the light
exertional level. She can occasionally climb ramps or stairs,
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl. However, she can
never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding[.]
(Tr. 24). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert ("VE"), the ALJ determined alternatively
that Ms. Grimm could perform her past relevant work as a
cashier II and short order clerk, and also could perform
other work existing in significant numbers in the national
economy. (Tr. 28-29). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that she
was not disabled. Id.
Grimm raises two primary arguments on appeal. First, she
argues that the ALJ improperly evaluated Listing 1.04.
Second, she contends that the ALJ erred in considering her
RFC assessment, particularly in the assignments of weight to
the various medical sources. I concur that the RFC assessment
is inadequate, and that further analysis should be provided
as to Listing 1.04. In remanding for further explanation, I
express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate
conclusion that Ms. Grimm is not entitled to benefits is
correct or incorrect.
with the successful argument, I cannot find on this record
that the ALJ supported his RFC assessment with substantial
evidence. 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). Here, the
ALJ's decision fails to meet the "substantial
evidence" standard. Although the relevant period for
consideration of disability is between the amended onset
date, March 16, 2013, and the date of the ALJ's opinion,
September 16, 2014, the ALJ's opinion rests almost
exclusively on the evidence predating that period. Although
the medical records appear to evidence worsening symptoms in
the 2013-2014 time frame, the ALJ relies heavily on records
from evaluations in 2011 and 2012, along with opinions from
non-examining medical consultants who did not have the
benefit of reviewing the more recent records. (Tr. 26-27). As
written, then, given the limited relevant window for
consideration of disability, the ALJ did not cite substantial
evidence within that window to support the assignment of
"limited weight" to the opinions of the treating
physicians, which were authored during that time frame.
See, (Tr. 620-21) (Dr. Bukhari assessment from Sept.
12, 2013 suggesting significant sitting and standing
restrictions); (Tr. 617-18) (Dr. Pasquarello assessment from
August 27, 2013 also suggesting significant sitting and
standing restrictions and explaining that an attempt to
return to sedentary work had been unsuccessful). In light of
the RFC assessment, which suggests an ability to perform
light work with few limitations and no sit/stand option,
further explanation is necessary to ascertain how the ALJ
reached that conclusion in light of the most recent medical
evidence in the record.
at Step Three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Grimm's
impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of
any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart
P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 23). His decision specifically addressed
physical Listing 1.04. To meet Listing 1.04, a claimant must
have a disorder of the spine, resulting in compromise of a
nerve root, with either: A) evidence of nerve root
compression; B) spinal arachnoiditis; or C) lumbar spinal
stenosis. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 1.04. In
his decision, the ALJ stated:
There is no evidence of nerve root compression accompanied by
sensory or reflex loss and positive straight-leg raising
test, spinal arachnoiditis resulting in the need for changes
in position or posture more than once every 2 hours; or
lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication and an
inability to ambulate effectively so as to meet any provision
of section 1.04.
must identify the relevant listings and compare each of the
criteria to the evidence of the claimant's symptoms when
there is "ample evidence in the record to support a
determination" that the claimant's impairments meet
or equal a listing. Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168,
1172-73 (4th Cir. 1986). Remand is not warranted "in
circumstances where it is clear from the record which listing
or listings ... were considered, " and the court can
still "readily determine whether there was substantial
evidence to support the ALJ's Step Three
conclusion." Id.; Schoofield v.
Barnhart, 220 F.Supp.2d 512, 522 (D. Md. 2002). In the
instant case, the record implicated Listing 1.04;
accordingly, the ALJ expressly identified that listing. (Tr.
23). Initially, it is clear from the opinion that the ALJ
believed there to be ample evidence to identify and discuss
each subsection of Listing 1.04, including Listing 1.04A.
Thus, I disagree with Ms. Grimm's assertion that the ALJ
erroneously added additional criteria to the requirements of
1.04A by discussing the requirements of the other two
the ALJ's analysis is otherwise deficient. In this case,
the ALJ did not cite any medical evidence to support his Step
Three conclusions, and simply made conclusory assertions
regarding the absence of evidence to support the criteria.
That deficiency might not be fatal, if the ALJ had cited to
substantial evidence to support his conclusion elsewhere
within the opinion. Here, however, the ALJ's overall
analysis falls short. The ALJ inaccurately asserts that Ms.
Grimm had no positive straight leg raising tests, when in
fact she did. (Tr. 681). The ALJ also asserts that there is
no evidence of nerve root compression, sensory, or reflex
loss. The evidence is somewhat equivocal on those points, and
in the absence of any specific discussion of the facts by the
ALJ, I am unable to review whether the ALJ's conclusions
were supported by substantial evidence. Although those
deficiencies might not warrant remand standing alone, because
the case is being remanded on other grounds, the ALJ should,
on remand, expand his Listing analysis to cite specific
medical evidence pertaining to each subsection of Listing
1.04 the ALJ deems relevant. In particular, where there is
evidence that could be used to support one of the relevant
criteria, such as a positive straight leg raising test, the
ALJ should explain his evaluation of that evidence in
connection with his Listing conclusions.
reasons set forth above, Plaintiffs Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 16) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 19) is DENIED. Pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the
Commissioner's judgment is REVERSED IN PART due to
inadequate analysis. The case is REMANDED for ...