United States District Court, D. Maryland
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
January 31, 2016, Plaintiff Kevin Howard Griffin petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”). (ECF No. 1). I have considered
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Mr.
Griffin's two motions to add new and material evidence to
the record. (ECF Nos. 16, 17, 21, 22). 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 Mr.
Griffin's motions, deny the Commissioner's motion,
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
Griffin filed his claim for benefits in December, 2014,
alleging a disability onset date of October 10, 2014. (Tr.
153-59). His claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 90-93, 96-97). A hearing was held on
October 1, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 28-62). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Mr. Griffin was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 10-27). The Appeals Council denied Mr.
Griffin's request for review. (Tr. 2-5). Thus, the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Mr. Griffin suffered from the severe impairments
of bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, meniscal
tear of the left knee, and depression. (Tr. 15). Despite
these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Griffin
retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
to “perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR
404.1567(c) except he cannot lift more than 50 pounds; he
cannot have direct interaction with the general public; and
he cannot perform complex tasks.” (Tr. 17). After
considering the testimony of a vocational expert
(“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Griffin could
perform his past relevant work as a “tractor-trailer
shuttle driver” and that, therefore, he was not
disabled. (Tr. 22).
Griffin advances several arguments on appeal. Specifically,
Mr. Griffin contends that: (1) the ALJ should have found his
neck and back pain to be a severe impairment; (2) the ALJ
engaged in an improper analysis of Listings 12.04 and 12.06;
(3) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Mr. Griffin's
credibility; (4) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the
medical opinions of Mr. Griffin's treating physicians;
(5) the ALJ erred in failing to request sufficient testimony
from the VE; and (6) the ALJ did not assign appropriate
weight to Mr. Griffin's disability finding from the
Veteran's Administration (“VA”). Mr. Griffin
also argues that new and material evidence justifies remand
to the Commissioner. Although most of Mr. Griffin's
arguments lack merit, as described below, I concur that the
ALJ erred in his Step Four analysis and his use of the VE
testimony. Accordingly, remand is warranted.
with the unsuccessful arguments, Mr. Griffin first contends
that the ALJ should have found his neck and back pain to
constitute a severe impairment at Step Two. Pl. Mot. 8-9. An
impairment is considered “severe” if it
significantly limits the claimant's ability to work.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The claimant bears
the burden of proving that his impairment is severe.
Johnson v. Astrue, Civil Action No. PWG-10-3139,
2012 WL 203397, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 23, 2012) (citing Pass
v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995)). Here,
the ALJ expressly considered Mr. Griffin's complaints of
“neck and shoulder pain, ” but found no
indication of treatment in the record. (Tr. 16). In
addition, as the ALJ noted, Mr. Griffin was physically
capable of working and only stopped working as a result of
other issues in 2014. (Tr. 20). Moreover, even if I were to
agree that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of Mr.
Griffin's neck and back pain at Step Two, such error
would be harmless. Because Mr. Griffin made the threshold
showing that other impairments were severe, the ALJ continued
with the sequential evaluation process and considered all of
the impairments, both severe and non-severe, that
significantly impacted Mr. Griffin's ability to work. See
20 C.F.R. § 404.1523; 1996 WL 374184, *5 (1996) (stating
that “in assessing RFC, the adjudicator must consider
limitations and restrictions imposed by all of an
individual's impairments, even those that are not
Mr. Griffin argues that the ALJ did not adequately consider
Listings 12.04 and 12.06. Pl. Mot. 9-12. In this argument,
Mr. Griffin essentially asks this Court to reweigh the
evidence presented to the ALJ. However, this Court's role
is not to reweigh the evidence or to substitute its judgment
for that of the ALJ, but simply to adjudicate whether the
ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence.
See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir.
1990). For example, Mr. Griffin argues that his
hospitalization in 2014 constituted an episode of
decompensation for purposes of the Listing. However, even a
single episode of decompensation would not change the overall
analysis, since the Listings require repeated episodes of
decompensation, each of extended duration. See 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.04, 12.06.
Regardless, even though Mr. Griffin might also point to
evidence to support his viewpoint, this Court may not credit
certain evidence over the evidence relied upon by the ALJ. In
this particular case, I acknowledge that there is evidence to
support both viewpoints, because, for example, Mr. Griffin
gave contradictory testimony about his activities and conduct
at his hearing. Compare (Tr. 36-37) (testimony that
he drives to his mother's house to help her “every
day, seven days a week - 18 miles one way”)
with (Tr. 44-45) (testimony that he is medically
unable to go to his mother's house “three days a
week, four days a week”). Because the ALJ supported his
conclusion with substantial evidence, there is no basis for
reweighing his conclusions.
Mr. Griffin contends that the ALJ should have assigned more
weight to the opinions of the non-examining State agency
physicians, because those physicians recommended RFCs that
were more restrictive than that arrived at by the ALJ. Pl.
Mot. 10, n. 6. Again, Mr. Griffin sets forth an argument that
the Court should reweigh the evidence, which it is not
entitled to do. Moreover, even if the opinions of the State
agency physicians were accepted, no listing would be met.
Griffin also argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate
his credibility. Pl. Mot. 12-15. Specifically, he believes
the ALJ erred by failing to “provide any proper
rationale as to why he did not find [Mr. Griffin's]
statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and
limiting effects of these symptoms credible.” Pl. Mot.
13. “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 Mr. Griffin's
assertion, the ALJ properly evaluated his credibility.
Notably, the ALJ found that Mr. Griffin's allegations of
disability were not fully credible, noting that
“[w]hile there is evidence of an exacerbation of
symptoms that occurred in October 2014, he subsequently
received treatment and there is evidence of improvement. His
resulting symptoms therefore do not prevent him from
performing all work-related activities.” (Tr. 19).
Specifically, the ALJ noted that mental health treatment
records showed improvement from medication and largely normal
evaluations once regular medication was established.
Id. The ALJ also reviewed physical medical records,
including objective testing, and found few treatment records
to establish serious impairment. (Tr. 20). The ALJ further
relied on Mr. Griffin's daily activities, which involved
driving a significant round trip distance almost every day to
assist his mother, working on his mother's farm, and
working part time as a dump truck driver. Id.
Finally, the ALJ evaluated the medical evidence of record and
assigned “great weight” to the opinion of the
psychological consultants. Ultimately, the ALJ's detailed
evaluation of the record evidence amply supports the
ALJ's conclusion that Mr. Griffin's alleged
limitations were not entirely credible. While Mr. Griffin is
able to point to other evidence in the record that might
support the opposite conclusion, as noted above, this Court
is not supposed to reweigh the evidence, but must defer to
the ALJ's conclusion if supported by substantial
evidence. Thus, contrary to Mr. Griffin's argument, the
ALJ properly evaluated Mr. Griffin's credibility, and
supported his findings with substantial evidence.
Mr. Griffin argues that the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to
the opinions of various medical sources, including treating
VA doctors and the non-treating State agency
consultants. Pl. Mot. 15-16. 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.”).
in asking this Court to assign different amounts of weight to
the medical sources, Mr. Griffin is again asking this Court
to reweigh the evidence considered and discussed by the ALJ.
Mr. Griffin also suggests that the ALJ's RFC assessment
is invalid because it is unsupported by any particular
expert's medical opinion. However, this Court has held
repeatedly that an ALJ need not parrot a single medical
opinion, or even assign “great weight” to any
opinions, in determining an RFC. Instead, an ALJ is required
to consider “all of the relevant medical and other
evidence.” See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a) (3); see also Felton-
Miller v. Astrue, 459 F. App'x 226, 230-31 (4th Cir.
2011) (determining that an ALJ need not obtain an expert
medical opinion to back a particular RFC, but should base an
individual's RFC on all available evidence). Accordingly,
there is no evident error in the ALJ's evaluation of the
medical opinion evidence.
Griffin also contends that the ALJ did not meaningfully
consider or assign weight to the VA disability ratings, in
violation of Bird v. Commissioner, 699 F.3d 337, 343
(4th Cir. 2012). However, the ALJ fully considered the VA
disability ratings, even citing the relevant standards from
Bird in the detailed discussion (Tr. 22). As the ALJ
explained, although the VE assigned Mr. Griffin a 70 percent
disability rating in 2011, Mr. Griffin performed substantial
gainful employment for several years despite that rating, and
was able to apply for and obtain new positions. Id.
Accordingly, the ALJ adequately explained his decisions for
assigning the VA disability ratings little weight, and there
is no violation of Bird.
final unsuccessful argument, Mr. Griffin proffers, in two
separate motions, that this Court should remand his case for
consideration of “new and material evidence.”
With those two motions he submitted voluminous medical
records, largely consisting of treatment notes from his VA
physicians both predating and postdating the ALJ's
opinion. I concur with the Commissioner that Mr. Griffin has
not offered good cause for his failure to submit the records
predating the administrative hearing to the ALJ during the
administrative process, or to the Appeals Council thereafter.
Mr. Griffin simply alleges that the records were “not
available, ” (ECF No. 17 at ¶ 2), without citing
any reason the records could not have been obtained at an
earlier time. As a result, I cannot review those records as
new and material evidence. See 42 U.S.C.A. §
405(g); Borders v. Heckler, 777 F.2d 954, 955 (4th
Cir. 1985) (superseded by amendment to statute) (requiring a
claimant seeking remand to show “good cause for the
claimant's failure to submit the evidence when the claim
was before the Commissioner.”). As for the medical
records generated after the administrative proceedings, Mr.
Griffin has not established that the records were material,
in that the Commissioner's decision “might
reasonably have been different.” Borders, 777
F.2d at 956. The VA records postdating the ALJ's
decision, both medical and psychiatric, are generally
consistent with the records predating the ALJ's decision.
The new records do show that Mr. Griffin had knee surgery in
January, 2016, but the ALJ had already considered the fact
that Mr. Griffin had been recommended for arthroscopic knee
surgery. (Tr. 20). Finally, the November 21, 2016 letter
regarding Mr. Griffin's diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress
Disorder (“PTSD”) and assignment of a service dog
does not provide any information that might be helpful to the
Commissioner. (ECF No. 22). The letter does not indicate when
the service dog was assigned, or what qualifications are
considered in assigning a service dog to a veteran with PTSD.
Id. Absent any such information, nothing about that
letter reasonably might have changed the Commissioner's