United States District Court, D. Maryland
SHARON L. SUTTON
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-captioned case has been
referred to me to review the parties' dispositive motions
and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). I have considered
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF
Nos. 11, 16]. 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. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3);
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996);
Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).
For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that Ms.
Sutton's motion be denied, that the Commissioner's
motion be granted, and that the Commissioner's judgment
be affirmed pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
Sutton filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) on August 28, 2012, alleging that her
disability began on May 28, 2010. (Tr. 115-17). Her
application was denied initially on December 20, 2012, and on
reconsideration on May 15, 2013. (Tr. 48-56, 58-68). An
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing
on October 8, 2014, at which Ms. Sutton was represented by
counsel. (Tr. 26-47). Following the hearing, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Sutton was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 9-24). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Sutton's request for review, (Tr. 1-5), so the ALJ's
decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the
found that Ms. Sutton suffered from the severe impairment of
degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 14). Despite this impairment,
the ALJ determined that Ms. Sutton retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). She can
occasionally climb ramps and/or stairs, but can never climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can have occasional
exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and hazards.
(Tr. 15). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Sutton
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled.
Sutton disagrees. She raises two primary arguments on appeal.
First, she argues that the ALJ improperly weighed the medical
opinion evidence. Second, she argues that the ALJ's
credibility findings were unsupported by substantial
evidence. Each argument lacks merit for the reasons discussed
Sutton first argues that the ALJ assigned too little weight
to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Gopez. Pl. Mot.
9-10. The ALJ assigned “no weight” to Dr.
Gopez's opinions, citing inconsistency with his own
treatment notes. (Tr. 17). In support of that conclusion, the
ALJ cited to portions of Dr. Gopez's treatment notes
throughout the opinion, including the fact that Ms. Sutton
was most often seen for diabetes management, and the fact
that she reported in 2014 feeling “well” with
“minor” complaints and full muscle strength. (Tr.
17). The ALJ also reported that Ms. Sutton was not seen for
six months in 2014 by her pain management doctors because she
was doing well. (Tr. 17). Ms. Sutton points this Court to
other records she believes to corroborate Dr. Gopez's
opinions about her limitations. Pl. Mot. 9-10. However, even
in light of that other 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). In light of that standard and the substantial evidence
the ALJ cited in support of his assessment, remand is
Sutton further objects to the assignment of great weight to
the opinion of a non-examining physician, Dr. Serpick. Ms.
Sutton suggests that reliance on Dr. Serpick's opinion is
inappropriate because he is a non-examining physician and
because he reviewed the file in 2013, before some of the
evidence was incorporated therein. Pl. Mot. 10-11. However,
reliance upon the opinion of a non-examining physician is
precluded only where “it is contradicted by all of the
other evidence in the record.” Smith v.
Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 348 (4th Cir. 1986). Here, as
noted above, there is evidence both supporting and
undermining a finding of disability. The ALJ was therefore
permitted to rely upon the opinion of the non-examining
physician, since there was some evidence to support his
conclusions. The 2013 date of Dr. Serpick's opinion also
does not provide a basis for assigning it reduced weight. His
opinion provided insight into Ms. Sutton's condition as
of the date of the report, which well post-dated Ms.
Sutton's alleged disability onset date of May 28, 2010. A
medical opinion is no less valid simply because it does not
consider developments that may have occurred subsequent to
its drafting. In fact, in this case, the evidence the ALJ
cites to reflect that Ms. Sutton's condition improved in
2014 further bolsters the ALJ's decision to assign great
weight to an opinion establishing her condition in 2013.
Sutton's final argument is that the ALJ erred in finding
her testimony to be less than credible. Pl. Mot. 12-14.
Social Security regulations provide a two-step framework for
considering subjective complaints. First, the ALJ determines
whether “medical signs or laboratory findings show that
a medically determinable impairment(s) is present.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(b), 416.929(b). The ALJ then
evaluates the intensity and persistence of the claimant's
symptoms by considering the record of evidence in its
entirety. Id. at §§ 404.1529(c),
416.929(c). In doing so, the ALJ considers the objective
medical evidence, as well as other evidence including the
claimant's daily activities, the frequency and intensity
of pain and other symptoms, precipitating and aggravating
factors, the effectiveness of medication and other treatment
methods, and other factors regarding functional limitations
or restrictions due to pain or other symptoms. Id.
noted above, in Ms. Sutton's case, the ALJ cited to
multiple medical records to support his conclusions,
including the records from the pain management specialist
showing no motor or sensory deficit and the lack of treatment
in 2014, the records from Dr. Gopez showing that treatment
was sought most often for diabetes and not neck or back pain,
and the fact that the records did not support Plaintiff's
testimony that she had experienced her alleged limitations
“with no notable change since her surgery in
2010.” (Tr. 17). The ALJ further weighed the opinions
of various medical sources, as discussed above. While Ms.
Sutton understandably disagrees with the outcome, it is clear
that the ALJ reviewed all of the evidence of record in
weighing Ms. Sutton's credibility and addressed the
evidence pursuant to the applicable Social Security
regulations. Accordingly, I find no basis for remand, and
recommend that the Court affirm the Commissioner's
reasons set forth above, I respectfully recommend that:
1. the Court GRANT Defendant's Motion for Summary