United States District Court, D. Maryland
Christina J. Hart
Commissioner, Social Security Administration
LETTER TO COUNSEL
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
13, 2016, Plaintiff Christina J. Hart petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's final
decision to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income.
(ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions
for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 15, 16). 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
Plaintiff's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion,
and affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405. This letter explains
Hart filed a claim for Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on September 21, 2012. (Tr. 198-206). She
alleged a disability onset date of November 23, 2009.
Id. Her claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 128-31, 139-40). A hearing was held on
October 1, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 55-95). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Hart was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 35-54). The Appeals Council (“AC”)
denied Ms. Hart's request for review, (Tr. 1-5), meaning
that the ALJ's decision is the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Ms. Hart suffered from the severe impairments of
“degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar
spine, borderline intellectual functioning (BIF), depressive
disorder, cognitive disorder, and anxiety.” (Tr. 40).
Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Hart
retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except the
claimant can occasional [sic] climb ramps and
stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; however, she
cannot climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. The claimant can
engage in simple repetitive tasks for 2-hour periods over an
8-hour workday. Additionally, changes in routine work tasks
should occur no more frequently than once every two weeks
with the addition of new or more complex tasks and the
claimant should be given a few extra minutes of supervision
at those times of change. Finally, the claimant should not
work at a production rate pace, as you would typically find
on a production line or in piecework.
(Tr. 44). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Hart
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled.
Hart raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ
assigned inadequate weight to the opinions of the treating
physicians, Drs. Koduah and Miller; and (2) that the ALJ
provided an inadequate hypothetical to the VE. Pl. Mem. 3-6.
Each argument lacks merit and is addressed below.
Ms. Hart contends that the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to
the opinions of the treating physicians, Drs. Koduah and
Miller. Pl. Mem. 3-5. 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. §
416.927(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. §
416.927(c)(1)-(6). The Commissioner 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. Hart's assertion, the ALJ properly evaluated the
opinions of Drs. Koduah and Miller. Beginning with the
former, Dr. Koduah opined that Ms. Hart “had extreme
limitations in daily living, maintaining social functioning,
and maintaining concentration.” (Tr. 47-48).
Additionally, Dr. Koduah opined that Ms. Hart “cannot
participate in work, schooling or training.” (Tr. 48).
Moreover, Dr. Koduah also opined that “[Ms. Hart's]
judgment and insight [were] intact, ” “her mood
[was] normal, ” and “she had no hallucinations,
no delusions present, or psychotic thoughts.” (Tr. 47).
assigned Dr. Koduah's opinion “little weight”
because it was inconsistent with the medical evidence. (Tr.
47-48). Most significantly, the ALJ found that,
“[w]hile Dr. Koduah is a treating medical source, his
opinion is inconsistent with the record, including the
claimant's course of treatment, normal objective
findings, and repeated activities of daily living.”
(Tr. 48). In addition, the ALJ noted that “Dr.
Koduah's opinion that [Ms. Hart] has extreme limitations
in daily living, social functioning, and maintaining
concentration is inconsistent with the medical evidence in
the record, including his notes of her office visits.”
Id. The ALJ also cited the State consultants's
determination that, although “[Ms. Hart] endorsed
severe problems with memory and concentration at CE, ”
she admitted that “she retains the capacity to drive,
shop, and manage finances without assistance.” (Tr.
48). Moreover, substantial evidence in the record further
belies Dr. Koduah's opinion, including “essentially
normal findings on examination, ” (Tr. 47), significant
admitted daily activities, id., and
“intact” immediate and long term memory recall,
(Tr. 43). These inconsistencies, in addition to others cited
by the ALJ, provide sufficient justification for the
ALJ's decision to accord only “little weight”
to Dr. Koduah's opinion.
also properly evaluated Dr. Miller's opinion. Dr. Miller
diagnosed Ms. Hart with depressive disorder, cognitive
disorder secondary to traumatic head injury, nicotine
dependence, mood disorder due to head trauma, and dyssomnia.
(Tr. 46). Dr. Miller also opined that Ms. Hart “was
limited in her activities when asked to describe how she
spends her day and social interactions.” (Tr. 48).
Moreover, Dr. Miller opined that Ms. Hart showed “no
evidence of a psychotic disorder or a major depression,
” but maintained “borderline to low average
intelligence; reduced general memory; [and] poor
concentration on tasks.” (Tr. 47).
assigned “limited weight” to Dr. Miller's
opinion because it was inconsistent with the medical evidence
and unsupported by the objective record. (Tr. 48). Most
significantly, the ALJ found that Dr. Miller's opinion
was “inconsistent with the longitudinal
record[.]” Id. Specifically, the ALJ found
that that the objective record “d[id] not show
significant limitations in social interactions and the
primary social limitation she testified to only involved
being in crowds.” Id. To the contrary, the ALJ
noted that Ms. Hart “functions well enough, ” and
“h[as] relatives and friends that allow her to live
with them.” Id. Moreover, Dr. Miller's own
treatment records contradict his determination that Ms.
Hart's social limitations precluded work. For example,
Dr. Miller noted that Ms. Hart “can care for her
personal needs, ” (Tr. 43), “takes public
transportation, ” id., was “marginally
competent to manage her finances, ” (Tr. 48), and has
“g[otten] along ok at work with co-workers and
supervisors in the past, ” (Tr. 43). Those findings, as
noted above, are also corroborated by the findings of the
State agency consultants. (Tr. 48).
my review of the ALJ's decision is confined to whether
substantial evidence, in the record as it was reviewed by the
ALJ, supports the decision and whether correct legal
standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 390, 404 (1971). Even if there is other
evidence that may support Ms. Hart's position, I am not
permitted to reweigh the evidence or to substitute my own
judgment for that of the ALJ. See Hays v. Sullivan,
907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Accordingly, the ALJ