United States District Court, D. Maryland
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge
January 21, 2016, Plaintiff Nora Elizabeth Price petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”). (ECF No. 1). I have considered
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Ms.
Price's reply. (ECF Nos. 20, 25, 26). 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 motions, 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 rationale.
Price filed her instant claim for benefits in May of 2012,
originally alleging a disability onset date of August 11,
2007. (Tr. 156-57). Her claim was denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 88-91, 93-94). A
hearing was held on June 19, 2014, before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 25-57). Following the
hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Price was not disabled
within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the
relevant time frame. (Tr. 9-24). The Appeals Council denied
Ms. Price's request for review, (Tr. 1-5), so the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Ms. Price suffered from the medically determinable
impairments of depressive disorder, anxiety disorder,
attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, left knee
Osgood-Schlatter disease, and trigeminal neuralgia. (Tr. 14).
However, the ALJ concluded that none of those impairments
were severe, in that they individually or in combination
significantly limited Ms. Price's ability to perform
basic work related activities for twelve consecutive months.
Id. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Price
was not disabled. (Tr. 19).
Price raises several arguments on appeal, essentially
contesting the ALJ's determination that her impairments
were not severe. I concur that the ALJ did not cite
substantial evidence to support that determination, at least
as it pertains to Ms. Price's mental
impairments. Accordingly, remand is warranted.
a claimant's burden of showing a severe impairment at
step two is only a “de minimis screening
device used to dispose of groundless claims.”
Taylor v. Astrue, No. BPG-11-032, 2012 WL 294532, at
*8 (D. Md. Jan. 31, 2012) (quoting Webb v. Barnhart,
433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005); see also Felton-Miller
v. Astrue, 459 F. App'x 226, 230 (4th Cir. 2011)
(“Step two of the sequential evaluation is a threshold
question with a de minimis severity
requirement.”). Accordingly, any doubt or ambiguity in
the evidence at step two should be resolved in the
claimant's favor, and the ALJ should continue with the
sequential evaluation. SSR 85-28.
the amendment of her alleged disability onset date to
December 2, 2009, Ms. Price had to establish disability
within a twenty-nine day window, since her date last insured
was December 31, 2009. (Tr. 168). In finding no severe
impairments, the ALJ repeatedly relied on the fact that Ms.
Price had only a single doctor's visit “during the
period at issue.” (Tr. 16-17). However, given the fact
that the period at issue was less than one month, the fact
that Ms. Price only had one appointment cannot reasonably
substantiate a lack of significant medical issues. Moreover,
the records from that one appointment do not suggest a
“groundless claim” subject to disposition at step
two. The December 7, 2009 appointment at Bay Area Neurology
reflected that Ms. Price was suffering from facial pain that
is not completely controlled by her medication that
“wears off often, ” that her depression is worse
and that her psychiatrist was “[not] seeing her any
further” but that a new doctor was “being
recommended.” (Tr. 390). In fact, in the
“Plan” section of the report, the neurologist
noted, “Psychiatry eval!” (emphasis in
original), despite the fact that none of the other suggested
treatments were underlined or had exclamation points. (Tr.
391). Moreover, in a follow up letter to Ms. Price's
treating physician about the appointment, the treating
neurologist, Dr. Larry Blum, increased her medication for
facial pain, stated, “[s]he does have a significant
history of depression, ” and noted that he had provided
a psychiatrist's number for follow-up. (Tr. 410-11). The
ALJ's description of that appointment as
“relatively unremarkable” (Tr. 16) and
“relatively benign” (Tr. 17) does not accurately
summarize its contents, particularly when compared to a
de minimis standard of severity.
addition, the ALJ did not provide substantial evidence to
support the assignment of “little-to-no weight”
to the opinion of the treating psychiatrist, Dr. Scribner.
The ALJ primarily relied upon the fact that Dr. Scribner
began treating Ms. Price after the date last insured. (Tr.
17-18). However, Dr. Scribner first saw Ms. Price only six
weeks after the date last insured, and there is no indication
that her mental health condition changed materially during
that window or that her lack of treatment during those six
weeks was attributable to anything other than the change in
treatment providers. The ALJ also relies upon the lack of
“any contemporaneous treatment notes from Dr.
Scribner.” (Tr. 18). However, the ALJ disregarded the
fact that Dr. Scribner appeared personally and testified at
the hearing before the ALJ, and read directly from her
treatment notes during the hearing. (Tr. 33-35). The ALJ
declined to ask Dr. Scribner any questions. (Tr. 37).
Therefore, it is not reasonable for the ALJ to rest an
assignment of little weight on the absence of contemporaneous
notes that were present in the hearing room, when the ALJ
failed to either request a copy of the notes or to ask for
additional information about Dr. Scribner's personal
observations during treatment.
the ALJ has not provided substantial evidence to justify a
determination that Ms. Price's impairments failed to meet
the de minimis standard of severity at step two.
Remand is therefore appropriate so that the ALJ can either
provide substantial evidence to justify that position or
complete the sequential evaluation. In so holding, I express
no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion
that Ms. Price is not entitled to benefits is correct or
reasons set forth above, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 20) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 25) is DENIED. Pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the
Commissioner's judgment is REVERSED IN PART due to
inadequate analysis. The case is REMANDED for further
proceedings in accordance with this opinion. The Clerk is
directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as
an opinion and docketed as an order.