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Walters v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 18, 2017

Erin Elizabeth Walters
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

         Dear Counsel:

         On 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.

         Ms. 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.

         The ALJ 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 (“RFC”) to:

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. 34-36).

         Ms. 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.

         Beginning 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.[1] 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 appellate review.

         Next, 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.[2] (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.

         Turning 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 evidence.

         Next, 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.”).

         Contrary 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 ...


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