Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Dobrzyn v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 21, 2016

Tammy Lee Dobrzyn
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         Dear Counsel:

         On October 11, 2015, Plaintiff, Tammy L. Dobrzyn, petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Title XVI Social Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. (ECF No. 1.) I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 14, 17) and I find that no hearing is necessary. 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); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Because I find it necessary to clarify one area of the ALJ's discussion, 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.

         Ms. Dobrzyn initially applied for SSI benefits on April 18, 2011, alleging disability as of July 2009, based on degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 13.) That claim was initially denied on October 4, 2011, and then, upon reconsideration, it was denied again on April 9, 2012. (Tr 13.) On May 29, 2012, Ms. Dobrzyn requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 13.) On April 29, 2014, a video hearing was held before ALJ Marc Mates, during which testimony was offered by the claimant and a vocational expert, Thomas Beale, M.D. (Tr. 27-48.) Following that hearing, on June 5, 2014, the ALJ issued a written opinion, in which he concluded that Ms. Dobrzyn was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 13.) Thereafter, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Dobrzyn's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr. 1-4.)

         As mentioned above, I must uphold the ALJ's findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through correct legal standards. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). And in accordance with this standard, “[I] do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [my] judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id.

         In making his decision on Ms. Dobrzyn's claim, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation of disability set forth in the Secretary's regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920 (1992). Pursuant to those regulations, the “ALJ must consider whether a claimant (1) is working, (2) has a severe impairment, (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment, (4) can return to [her] past work, and (5) if not, whether [she] can perform other work.” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34-35 (4th Cir. 1992) (internal citations omitted). “If the ALJ finds that a claimant has not satisfied any step of the process, review does not proceed to the next step. Through the fourth step, the burden of production and proof is on the claimant.” Id. (internal citations omitted). If, however, the claimant reaches step five, then “the burden shifts to the Secretary to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform considering his age, education, and work experience.” Id. (internal citations omitted).

         In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Dobrzyn had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since April 18, 2011, the date of her DIB application. Next, the ALJ determined that Ms. Dobrzyn's degenerative disc disease, which she suffered from through her date last insured, constituted a “severe impairment” under the regulations. (Tr. 15.) The ALJ also discussed, in detail, several other impairments that were in the record and alleged by Ms. Dobrzyn. But the ALJ determined that those impairments, which included Ms. Dobrzyn's “well-controlled asthma, sinusitis, dyslipidemia, a left ankle sprain, and very minor right hip osteoarthritis, ” were non-severe. (Tr. 15.)

         Ultimately, the ALJ found that Ms. Dobrzyn did not have an impairment, or a combination of impairments, that met or medically equaled any of the impairments listed set forth in 20 C.F.R Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 15-21.) Then, “after careful consideration of the entire record, ” the ALJ found that Ms. Dobrzyn had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to “perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(a), insofar that she is able to lift/carry 10 pounds occasionally and less than 10 pounds frequently, stand/walk about 2 hours, and sit about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She is able to perform postural activities, including balancing and stooping, occasionally. The claimant requires the opportunity to alternate between standing and sitting as needed, while remaining on task.” (Tr. 16.) Finally, the ALJ, relying on vocational expert testimony, determined that, while Ms. Dobrzyn could not perform her past relevant work, she could perform other representative jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national/regional economy. (Tr. 18-20.)

         On appeal, Ms. Dobrzyn raises two primary issues. First, she contends the ALJ “erred in his evaluation of the medical opinion evidence, his assessment of medical impairment listings, in violation of 20 C.F.R. § 416.920, et seq., his assessment of Residual Functional Capacity in violation of 20 C.F.R. § 416.927, et seq., and his assessment of the claimant's credibility and exertional and non-exertional limitations.” And second, she contends that the ALJ “erred in his evaluation of the Vocational Expert opinion evidence, did not meaningfully consider the favorable and relevant medical and vocational evidence.” Because Ms. Dobrzyn incorporates a number of arguments into each of these two issues, I have organized my discussion of her claims into individual parts.

         - ALJ's Consideration of the Medical Evidence -

         At step two of the analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Dobrzyn's asthma, sinusitis, left ankle instability, and right hip osteoarthritis did not constitute severe impairments because “they cause no more than minimal limitations, have not met the durational requirement, and/or are not fully supported by the record.” (Tr. 15.) Ms. Dobrzyn disagrees with this finding, arguing that such conditions have been found to be severe and that the ALJ failed to “properly consider the medical evidence of record.”[1]

         “In order to be ‘severe', an impairment must significantly limit one's ability to do basic work activities. Schmidt v. Astrue, No. PWG-07-3325, 2009 WL 3054020, at *1 (D. Md. Sept. 17, 2009) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a)). “An impairment is not severe if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age, education, or work experience.” Id. (internal citations omitted). And, of particular relevance to this case, “a mere diagnosis says nothing about the severity of the condition.” Corcoran v. Astrue, No. CIV. SKG-08-913, 2009 WL 3100350, at *15 (D. Md. Sept. 22, 2009).

         It is worth noting from the outset that while the ALJ's discussion of why these conditions were not severe impairments was, to some extent, cursory, Ms. Dobrzyn provides little in the way of discussion or citations to the record as to how these conditions were, in fact, severe and how such severity had a functional impact on her ability to work. Nonetheless, the ALJ's determination that these conditions were not severe is supported, at least in part, by the medical record in this case. Specifically, the ALJ found that Ms. Dobrzyn's asthma was “well-controlled, ” which is consistent with various portions of the record describing the asthma as being controlled by her prescribed medications. (Tr. 482-497, 509.) And while there was a reported asthma attack in November 2009 and occasional shortness of breath in 2013, Ms. Dobrzyn does not explain how these isolated reports render her condition “severe” under the regulations. Moreover, as for the ankle instability and the osteoarthritis of the hip, the record provides that Ms. Dobrzyn complained of these conditions on several occasions. However, at several follow up medical consults, Ms. Dobrzyn was determined to be “walking without difficulty” and her ankle joint and hip appeared to be “normal.” (Tr. 434, 438, 474.)[2]

         Furthermore, even if the ALJ had erred in his evaluation of any of these impairments at Step Two, such error would be harmless. Because Ms. Dobrzyn made the threshold showing that her back pain constituted a severe impairment, the ALJ continued with the sequential evaluation process and properly considered all of the impairments, both severe and non-severe, that significantly impacted her ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. Therefore, any Step Two error does not necessitate remand.

         - ALJ's Evaluation of Severity of Spinal Condition -

         “At step three of the sequential evaluation, the ‘listed impairments' step, the ALJ must determine if the claimant's impairment(s) meet or equal one or more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1.” Boone v. Colvin, No. CV ADC-15-2896, 2016 WL 6462185, at *6 (D. Md. Oct. 31, 2016). At this step, “[w]here a claimant can show that her condition meets or equals the listed impairments, the claimant is entitled to a conclusive presumption that she is disabled within the meaning of the Social ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.