United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-referenced case has been
referred to me for review of the Commissioner's
dispositive motion, [ECF No. 22], and to make recommendations
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule
301.5(b)(ix). This Court must uphold the
Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial
evidence and if proper legal standards were employed. 42
U.S.C. § 405(g); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514,
517 (4th Cir. 1987). After reviewing the record in this case,
I find that no hearing is necessary. Local R. 105.6 (D. Md.
2016). For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that the
Commissioner's motion be granted.
Cole applied for Disability Insurance Benefits and
Supplemental Security Income on October 18, 2011, alleging a
disability onset date of April 9, 2011. (Tr. 269-80). His
claims were denied initially on January 18, 2012, and on
reconsideration on May 16, 2012. (Tr. 86-109, 112-35). An
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held hearings on
September 26, 2013 and March 18, 2014, and Mr. Cole was
represented by counsel at the second hearing. (Tr. 47-85).
The ALJ subsequently wrote an opinion denying benefits to Mr.
Cole. (Tr. 24-45). The Appeals Council denied review, (Tr.
1-6), making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that, during the relevant time frame, Mr. Cole suffered
from the severe impairments of “bipolar disorder,
learning disabilities, cognitive impairment, left knee
osteophytosis, obesity, spine disorder, shoulder strain and
alcohol abuse.” (Tr. 29). Despite these impairments,
the ALJ determined that Mr. Cole retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except he can occasionally stoop, twist, crouch,
kneel, crawl, balance and climb stairs and ramps. He cannot
climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. He can understand,
remember, and carry out simple instructions. He can perform
simple, routine and repetitive tasks free of fast-paced
production requirements with no required reading or writing
and occasional required interaction with the public,
supervisors and coworkers.
(Tr. 33). After considering testimony from a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that there were
jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy
that Mr. Cole could perform, and that he was not therefore
disabled. (Tr. 38-39).
carefully reviewed the ALJ's opinion and the entire
record. See Elam v. Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 746, 753
(E.D. Tex. 2005) (mapping an analytical framework for
judicial review of a pro se action challenging an
adverse administrative decision, including: (1) examining
whether the Commissioner's decision generally comports
with regulations, (2) reviewing the ALJ's critical
findings for compliance with the law, and (3) determining
from the evidentiary record whether substantial evidence
supports the ALJ's findings). For the reasons described
below, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.
proceeded in accordance with applicable law at all five steps
of the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found in
Mr. Cole's favor that, although he had worked, he had not
engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged
onset date. (Tr. 29). At step two, the ALJ found the severe
impairments specified above, and also considering other
impairments that the ALJ concluded were either non-severe or
not medically determinable, citing to medical and record
evidence. (Tr. 29-30). Although I find no error in the
ALJ's evaluation, even if I were to find that the ALJ
erred in her evaluation of any of Mr. Cole's impairments
at step two, such error would be harmless. Because Mr. Cole
made the threshold showing that other disorders constituted
severe impairments, the ALJ continued with the sequential
evaluation process and considered all of the impairments,
both severe and non-severe, that significantly impacted Mr.
Cole's ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. §
three, the ALJ engaged in a comprehensive analysis of Mr.
Cole's shoulder and knee impairments with respect to
Listing 1.02A, and mental health Listings 12.02, 12.04,
12.05C, and 12.09. (Tr. 31-33). The ALJ cited to the specific
criteria of each of those Listings, and addressed which of
the criteria had not been established. Id. In
particular, for the mental health Listings, the ALJ used the
appropriate special technique to assess whether Mr. Cole met
the “paragraph B” or “paragraph C”
criteria of that Listing. Id. Citing to the evidence
of record, the ALJ found only a mild restriction in
activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social
functioning, moderate difficulties in concentration,
persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation of
extended duration. Id. The detailed analysis
provided by the ALJ contains substantial evidence to support
her conclusion that the relevant Listings have not been met
four, the ALJ provided a summary of Mr. Cole's testimony
at the hearing. (Tr. 34). The ALJ also summarized findings
from the medical evidence demonstrating that Mr. Cole's
symptoms “improve with consistent psychiatric
treatment, ” (Tr. 34), and that his shoulder and knee
problems do not preclude work activity, (Tr. 35-36). In
particular, the ALJ cited notes reflecting that Mr. Cole had
turned down a janitorial job because he was afraid that the
number of work hours would preclude his obtaining disability
benefits. (Tr. 36). The ALJ also cited a DORS evaluation
suggesting that Mr. Cole would be capable of employment so
long as he received continued psychiatric care.
Id.The ALJ made an adverse credibility assessment,
supported by the inconsistency between the medical evidence
and Mr. Cole's testimony. Id. Finally, the ALJ
evaluated the opinion evidence provided by the treating
physicians, Drs. Seunarine, Coleman, and Raiker, another
medical source, Mr. Akpan, and the State agency medical
consultants. (Tr. 36-37). With respect to the treating
physicians, the ALJ appropriately noted that their relatively
extreme opinions conflicted with their treatment notes and
other record evidence. Id. Instead, the ALJ assigned
“moderate weight” to Mr. Akpan's conclusions,
which were generally consistent with the RFC assessment, and
“significant weight” to the State agency medical
function of this Court is not to review Mr. Cole's claims
de novo or to reweigh the evidence of record.
Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir.
1986) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and Blalock v.
Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972)). Rather,
this Court is to determine whether, upon review of the whole
record, the Commissioner's decision is supported by
substantial evidence and a proper application of the law.
Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir.
1990); Coffman, 829 F.2d at 517; see 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). Under that standard, and in light of
the abundant evidence cited by the ALJ suggesting that Mr.
Cole was capable of substantial gainful employment with
appropriate mental health treatment, I recommend that the
ALJ's RFC assessment be affirmed.
also appropriately completed step five of the sequential
evaluation. The ALJ took testimony from the VE regarding
whether Mr. Cole could perform his past relevant work, and
determined that he could not. (Tr. 37, 81-82). The ALJ then
posed a series of hypotheticals to the VE to determine
whether a person with each set of hypothetical criteria would
be able to find work. (Tr. 81-82). Ultimately, the ALJ
determined that Mr. Cole's RFC matched one of the
hypotheticals she had posed. (Tr. 33, 81). The VE had cited
three light jobs in response to that hypothetical, and the
ALJ relied on that VE testimony in her opinion. (Tr. 37, 82).
The ALJ's step five determination, therefore, was
supported by substantial evidence. There is therefore no
basis to remand the case under sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g), because I have not found: (1) that the
Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial
evidence; or (2) that the Commissioner misapplied the
reasons set forth above, I respectfully recommend that the
Court GRANT Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, [ECF