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Green v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 3, 2017

Amanda Beth Green
Carolyn Colvin;

         Dear Counsel:

         On March 15, 2016, Plaintiff Amanda Beth Green petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Plaintiff's response. (ECF Nos. 16, 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 Plaintiff's 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.

         Ms. Green filed a claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on October 10, 2010. (Tr. 13). She alleged a disability onset date of December 11, 2009. (Tr. 12). Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 139-41, 146-47). A hearing was held on March 2, 2012, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 175). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Green was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 113-129). The Appeals Council granted Ms. Green's request for review, (Tr.130-34), after which a second hearing was held on June 6, 2014. (Tr. 12). The ALJ again denied benefits. (Tr. 12-25). The Appeals Council thereafter denied Ms. Green's request for review, (Tr. 1), so the ALJ's 2014 decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Green suffered from the severe impairments of obesity, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, affective/bipolar disorder, PTSD/anxiety disorder, borderline intellectual functioning, history of intravenous drug use. (Tr. 14). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Green retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolding, and she is unable to tolerate exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and moving machinery. She can use commonsense understanding to perform detailed but uninvolved oral or written instructions, consistent with a range of simple, routine, and unskilled work at or below reasoning level two as those terms are defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. She can work with the general public, co-workers, and supervisors occasionally. Furthermore, Ms. Green can perform low-stress jobs, defined as work that is not performed at an assembly-line pace or production pace, with few workplace changes and little independent decision making.

(Tr. 18). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Green could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 24).

         On appeal, Ms. Green argues that the ALJ failed to determine that she had an intellectual disability as defined at Medical Listings 12.05(C) and 12.05(D). Pl.'s Mot. 1. This argument lacks merit and is addressed below.

         Ms. Green argues that the ALJ's listing analysis is erroneous because “it was based on conclusions and findings of fact which were not supported by substantial evidence and/or were contrary to Social Security law and regulation.” Pl.'s Mot. 16, 16-26. If Ms. Green is right, the ALJ's listing analysis would violate the Fourth Circuit's mandate in Fox v. Colvin, 632 Fed. App'x. 750 (4th Cir. 2015). 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 “consider[s] 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 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 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 his findings at step three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ stated that “[t]he severity of the claimant's mental impairments, considered singly and in combination, do not meet or medically equal the criteria of listing[]… 12.05.” (Tr. 16). The ALJ went on to provide a detailed explanation, with references to the evidence of record, to support his conclusion that Ms. Green did not satisfy either Listing 12.05(C) or 12.05(D). (Tr. 16-23). For a claimant to have an intellectual disability, Listing 12.05 requires “significant[] subaverage general intellectual functioning with deficits in adaptive functioning initially manifested during the development period … before age 22 … [demonstrated by:]

C. A valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70 and a physical or other mental impairment imposing an additional and significant work-related limitation of function; OR
D. A valid verbal, performance, or full scale IQ of 60 through 70, resulting in at least two of the following:
1. Marked restriction of activities of daily living; or
2. Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; or
3. Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, ...

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