United States District Court, D. Maryland
February 14, 2016, Plaintiff Erin Elizabeth Walters
petitioned this Court to review the Social Security
Administration's final decision to deny her claims for
Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and
Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (ECF No.
1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for
summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 15, 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 both
parties' motions, reverse the Commissioner's
judgment, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further
consideration pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). This letter explains my rationale.
Walters filed her claims for benefits on February 28, 2012,
alleging a disability onset date of January 15, 2011. (Tr.
229-41). Her claims were denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 163-70, 175-78). A hearing was held on
June 10, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 42-74). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Walters was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 11-41). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Walters's request for review. (Tr. 2-4). Thus, the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Ms. Walters suffered from the severe impairments
of “degenerative disc disease, asymptomatic HIV, and
major depressive disorder, recurrent.” (Tr. 17).
Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Walters retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except she can stand and walk only two hours and
sit for six hours total in an 8-hour day; climb ramps or
stairs frequently; cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds;
and can only occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or
crawl. She can perform the following 90 percent of the time:
understanding, remembering, and carrying out detailed
instructions; maintaining attention and concentration for
extended periods; completing a normal workday and work week
without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms;
performing at a consistent pace without an unreasonable
number and length of rest periods; interacting appropriately
with the general public; responding appropriately to
criticism from supervisors; and setting realistic goals or
making plans independently of others.
(Tr. 22). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Walters could perform her past relevant work as an office
helper and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr.
Walters advances several arguments on appeal. Specifically,
Ms. Walters contends that: (1) the ALJ did not engage in a
proper analysis of Listing 14.08; (2) the ALJ erroneously
assessed Ms. Walters's RFC; (3) the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate Ms. Walters's credibility; (4) the ALJ
failed to properly evaluate the medical opinions of Ms.
Walters's treating physicians; and (5) the ALJ erred in
disregarding testimony by the VE. I agree that the ALJ did
not engage in a proper analysis of Listing 14.08, and that
the ALJ erroneously assessed Ms. Walters's RFC. I
therefore remand the case for further analysis. In so
holding, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's
ultimate determination that Ms. Walters was not entitled to
benefits was correct or incorrect.
with the successful arguments, Ms. Walters first contends
that the ALJ did not engage in a proper listing analysis.
Specifically, Ms. Walters argues that the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate Listing 14.08. The ALJ's opinion
included the following:
The State agency physicians, who are skilled and experienced
in reviewing records and assessing the impairments and
limitations that are documented in those records, concluded
that the claimant's impairments did not meet or equal the
requirements of any section of Appendix 1. In particular, the
undersigned has considered Listings 1.04, 12.04, and 14.08.
The records that have been submitted since the State agency
completed its review do not warrant a different determination
at the third step of the evaluation process. No treating or
examining physician or psychologist has identified medical
signs or findings that meet or medically equal the
requirements of any section of Appendix 1. The undersigned
has reviewed the records and finds that the claimant does not
have impairments that meet or equal the requirements of any
section of Appendix 1.
(Tr. 19-20). It is clear that the ALJ believed there to be
ample evidence to identify and discuss Listings 1.04, 12.04,
and 14.08. However, after identifying those listings, the ALJ
did not discuss any of the relevant criteria for Listing
14.08. The Commissioner argues, quite correctly, that the
ALJ's analysis need not be in the “step
three” section of the opinion in order for the opinion
to be adequate as a whole. In this case, though, the ALJ does
not mention the relevant criteria at any point in the
opinion. Notably, the ALJ does not address whether Ms.
Walters has evidence of infection, malignant neoplasms, skin
lesions, HIV encephalopathy, or HIV wasting syndrome.
See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 §
14.08. Moreover, the ALJ's general commentary on Ms.
Walters's HIV diagnosis does not suffice to constitute
“specific application of the pertinent legal
requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v.
Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291-92 (4th Cir. 2013);
see § 14.08 (noting additional requirements
following documentation of HIV infection). Accordingly,
remand is warranted for further analysis that might permit
Ms. Walters contends that the ALJ erroneously assessed her
RFC. Pl. 14-17; 21-23. Specifically, she argues that the ALJ
failed to support her RFC determination with substantial
evidence. Id. Social Security regulations require an
ALJ to include “a narrative discussion of [the]
claimant's symptoms and medical source opinions.”
Thomas v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec., 2011 WL
6130605, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 7, 2011). In doing so, an ALJ
must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the
evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford v.
Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000), as amended
(Dec. 13, 2000). Here, the ALJ failed to provide “an
accurate and logical bridge” between Ms. Walters's
limitations and the ALJ's RFC determination. Most
significantly, in formulating the RFC assessment, the ALJ
noted that Ms. Walters would be off task 10% of the
time. (Tr. 22). The ALJ, however, failed to
explain the basis for her conclusion. Notably, the ALJ found
that Ms. Walters had “moderate difficulties” in
concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 21). The ALJ also
noted that Ms. Walters performed well on examination, and
cited Ms. Walters's testimony that she did not have
“any difficulty with memory or concentration.”
Id. However, the ALJ also noted the treating
psychiatrist's determination that Ms. Walters had
“marked limitations” in her ability to
“maintain attention and concentration for extended
periods, ” (Tr. 19), and the State agency's
determination that Ms. Walters had “some difficulties
with tasks involving complex mental demands, ” (Tr.
27). Regardless, the ALJ failed to explain how these findings
translate into a determination that Ms. Walters would be off
task 10% of the time. An explanation of how that percentage
was calculated is significant, since a one percent increase
could preclude competitive employment. See Schlossnagle
v. Colvin, 2016 WL 4077672, at *4 (August 1, 2016)
(holding that “being off task more than 10% of the time
during an eight-hour workday would preclude all competitive
employment.”). Accordingly, without further
explanation, I am unable to ascertain how the ALJ assessed
Ms. Walters's difficulties in staying on task, and how
those difficulties impacted the RFC assessment. In light of
this inadequacy, I must remand the case to the Commissioner
for further analysis. On remand, the ALJ should consider the
impact of Ms. Walters's limitations on the RFC
determination, and explain the reasons for that finding,
citing substantial evidence.
to the unsuccessful arguments, Ms. Walters next argues that
the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her credibility. Pl. Mot.
14-17. Specifically, she believes the ALJ erred by failing to
“provide any proper rationale as to why she did not
find [Ms. Walters's] statements concerning the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of [her] symptoms
credible.” Pl. Mot. 14. “In determining the
credibility of the individual's statements, the
adjudicator must consider the entire case record, including
the objective medical evidence, the individual's own
statements about symptoms, statements and other information
provided by treating or examining physicians…and any
other relevant evidence in the case record.” SSR 96-7P,
1996 WL 374186, at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). Contrary to Ms.
Walters's assertion, the ALJ properly evaluated her
credibility. Notably, the ALJ found that Ms. Walters's
allegations of disability were “inconsistent with a
disabling level of impairments” and disproportionate to
the objective medical record. See (Tr. 24-31).
Specifically, the ALJ noted that, upon examination,
“[Ms. Walters] had a normal gait, with full range of
motion of all four extremities, ” “had a negative
straight leg raising test, ” and had “no sensory
deficits to soft touch or pinprick and no evidence of
allodynia or hyperalgesia.” (Tr. 25). In addition, the
ALJ noted Ms. Walters's testimony that she “she was
doing well and had no complaints, ” and her treating
physician's statements that Ms. Walters's
“health status, ” “mental status, ”
and “mood” had improved, (Tr. 26). Moreover, the
ALJ noted that Ms. Walters's statements regarding her
daily activities further belied her allegations, including
her admission that she was working as recently as February
2012, “cares for her daughter part-time, ”
“go[es] to the gym on occasion with a friend, ”
“goes shopping in stores for food and personal items,
” “uses public transportation, ” and
“goes to the local public library.” (Tr. 24-25).
Ultimately, the ALJ's detailed evaluation of the record
evidence against Ms. Walters's statements regarding her
physical and mental symptoms amply supports the ALJ's
conclusion that Ms. Walters's alleged limitations were
not entirely credible. Thus, contrary to Ms. Walters's
argument, the ALJ properly evaluated Ms. Walters's
credibility, and supported her findings with substantial
Ms. Walters argues that the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to
the opinion of her treating physicians, Drs. Agwu and Wissow.
Pl. Mot. 17-18. A treating physician's opinion is given
controlling weight when two conditions are met: 1) it is
well-supported by medically acceptable clinical laboratory
diagnostic techniques; and 2) it is consistent with other
substantial evidence in the record. See Craig, 76
F.3d 585 (4th Cir. 1996); see also 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(d)(2). However, where a treating source's
opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or is
inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be
accorded significantly less weight. Craig, 76 F.3d
at 590. If the ALJ does not give a treating source's
opinion controlling weight, the ALJ will assign weight after
applying several factors, such as, the length and nature of
the treatment relationship, the degree to which the opinion
is supported by the record as a whole, and any other factors
that support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1527(c)(1)-(6). The ALJ must also consider, and is
entitled to rely on, opinions from non-treating doctors.
See SSR 96-6p, at *3 (“In appropriate
circumstances, opinions from State agency medical and
psychological consultants and other program physicians and
psychologists may be entitled to greater weight than the
opinions of treating or examining sources.”).
to Ms. Walters's assertion, the ALJ properly evaluated
the opinions of Drs. Agwu and Wissow. Beginning with the
former, Dr. Agwu opined that Ms. Walters “was incapable
of performing a full-time job 8 hours per day, five days per
week, on a regular and continuing basis[.]” (Tr. 19).
Additionally, Dr. Agwu opined that Ms. Walters is “able
to stand and walk less than about two hours (with normal
breaks) during an 8-hour workday, ” “ha[s] a
limited ability to sit, ” and “can lift and carry
only ten pounds frequently.” Id. Moreover, Dr.
Agwu opined that Ms. Walters “need[s] the freedom to
shift at will between ...