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Rios v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 23, 2017

WANDA RIOS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration. Defendant.



         On March 11. 2016, Wanda Rios ("Plaintiff) petitioned this court to review the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 ("the Complaint"). After consideration of the Complaint and each parties cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 16 and 17), the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). In addition, for the reasons that follow. Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16) is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17) is GRANTED. and the decision of the Social Security Administration is AFFIRMED.


         On December 1, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income alleging disability beginning on December 10. 2010. Plaintiff additionally filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration on March 14, 2014 and July 17. 2014. respectively. Subsequently, on July 31, 2014. Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and. on May 13, 2015. a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On December 30, 2015, the AIJ rendered a decision denying Plaintiffs claims for SSI. See ECF No. 13. Thereafter, on February 5, 2016. the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the ALJ's decision. Thus, the decision rendered by the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. See C.F.R. § 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel. 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On March 11, 2016, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.[1] On August 15, 2016, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. On October 5. 2016. Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgement and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.


         "This Court is authorized to review the Commissioner's denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g)." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, the Court does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence. Instead, the Court's review of an SSA decision is deferential, as "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996) ("The duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court."); see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4, h Cir. 1986) ("We do not conduct a de novo review of the evidence, and the Secretary's finding of non-disability is to be upheld, even if the court disagrees, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence."). Therefore, the issue before the reviewing court "is not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [Plaintiff] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Gutter, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) ("Under the Social Security Act, [a reviewing court] must uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.").

         Substantial evidence means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (internal quotation marks omitted); see Hancock v. Astrae. 667 F.3d 470, 472 (2012). It "consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Smith v. Chaier, 99 F.3d at 638. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks omitted). "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. (internal quotation marks omitted). Therefore, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court shall determine whether the ALJ has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to that evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Disability Determinations and Birden of Proof

         In order to be eligible for DIB. a claimant must establish that he is under disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act. The term "disability." for purposes of the Social Security Act. is defined as the "[i]nability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A). 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. A claimant shall be determined to be under disability where "his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such a severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A). 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the ALJ, acting on behalf of the Commissioner, follows the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. 416.920; see Barn hurt v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003).The evaluation process is sequential, meaning that. "[i]f at any step a finding of disability or non-disability can be made, the [Commissioner] will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas. 540 U.S. at 24; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4). 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one. the ALJ considers the claimant's work activity to determine if the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity.'' 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b).

         At step two, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment [or combination of impairments] that meets the duration requirement'" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments meeting the durational requirement of 12 months, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c). 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c), 416.909.

         At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairments, either individually or in comhination. meet or medically equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Prior to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must assess the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), which is then used at the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). RFC is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis. Social Security Ruling (SSR) 96-8p. The ALJ must consider even those impairments that are not "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).

         In determining RFC, the ALJ evaluates the claimant's subjective symptoms (e.g., allegations of pain) using a two-part test. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 594 (4th Cir.1996); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. First, the ALJ must determine whether objective evidence shows the existence of a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the actual alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Once the claimant makes that threshold showing, the ALJ must evaluate the extent to which the symptoms limit the claimant's capacity to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1). At this second stage, the ALJ must consider all the available evidence, including medical history, objective medical evidence, and statements by the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). The ALJ must assess the credibility of the claimant's statements, as symptoms can sometimes manifest at a greater level of severity of impairment than is shown by solely objective medical evidence. SSR 96-7p. To assess credibility, the ALJ should consider factors such as the claimant's daily activities, treatments she has received for her symptoms, medications, and any other factors contributing to functional limitations. (Id.).

         At step four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has the ability to perform past relevant work based on his or her RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(e), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). 416.920(e).

         Where the claimant is unable to resume her past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step of the sequential analysis. At steps one through four of the evaluation, the claimant has the burden of proof. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137. 146 (1987): see also Radford, 734 F.3d at 291. At step five, however, the burden of proof shifts to the ALJ to prove: (1) that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant's age. education, work experience, and RFC (as determined at step four), and; (2) that such alternative work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); See Hancock v. Astrue. 667 F.3d 470. 472-73 (4, h Cir. 2012); See also Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). If the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. i}§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g)(1), 404.1560(c), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot perform other work, then the claimant is disabled. Id. In addition, before the agency may conclude that a claimant can perform alternative skilled or semi-skilled work, it must show that the claimant possesses skills that are transferable to those alternative positions or that no such transferable skills are necessary to perform those positions. McLain v Schweiker, 715 F.2d 866, 868-69 (4th Cir. 1983).

         ALJ Determination

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation and found, at step one, that Plaintiff did not engage in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of December 5. 2013. ECF No. 13 at 20. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: affective disorder, anxiety disorder, degenerative joint disease of the right shoulder, and degenerative changes of the lumbar spine. Id. at 21. The ALJ further found that the aforementioned impairments were expected to last a period of twelve months. Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404. Subpart P, Appendix 1. Id.

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity to "perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 416.967(a) except she can have only occasional contact with the public and co-workers and frequently use her right arm and hand." Id. at 23. In addition, after considering the evidence on record, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiffs medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms. Id. at 27. However, the ALJ found that Plaintiffs statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of those symptoms were not entirely credible. Id. Based on the resulting RFC. the ALJ then determined that Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a secretary and receptionist.[2]

         Finally, at step Five, the ALJ determined that, "[c]onsidering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, the claimant has also acquired work skills from past relevant work that are transferable to other occupations with jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy." Id. at 33. Based on the testimony of the vocational expert (VE), the ALJ determined that Plaintiffs skills would transfer to secretary positions in other industries, such as school secretary (15, 000 jobs locally. 500.000 jobs nationally) and data entry clerk (1, 000 positions locally, 50.000 positions nationally). ...

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