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Lee v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 14, 2017

MICHELE LEE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S ALTERNATIVE MOTION FOR REMAND

          Thomas M. DiGirolamo United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Michele Lee seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 14) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21).[2] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that she is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 14) is GRANTED.

         I

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1968, has a tenth-grade education, and previously worked as a short-order cook and cashier. R. at 449-52. Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on June 3, 2009, and for SSI protectively on June 4, 2009, alleging disability beginning on April 1, 2008, due to arthritis; tendonitis; and major, recurrent depression. R. at 14, 108-11, 135. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 44-47, 58-72. On June 23, 2011, an ALJ dismissed Plaintiff's request for a hearing as untimely. R. at 48-52. The Appeals Council vacated the ALJ's dismissal and remanded after finding good cause for Plaintiff's untimeliness. R. at 53-57A.

         On June 11, 2013, ALJ Stewart Goldstein held a hearing in Hagerstown, Maryland, at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 443-71. On December 26, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset date of disability of April 1, 2008, through the date of the decision. R. at 11-28. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 28, 2015. R. at 7-10. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On October 29, 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. After the parties consented, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case then was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.

         II

         Summary of Evidence

         A. State Agency Medical Consultants

         On December 10, 2009, a state agency consultant, E. Edmunds, Ph.D., using the psychiatric review technique (“PRT”) under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a, evaluated Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listings 12.04, 12.08, and 12.09 relating to affective disorders, personality disorders, and substance addiction disorders (R. at 255-68). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 §§ 12.04, 12.08, 12.09. Dr. Edmunds opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, Plaintiff's mental impairments caused her to experience (1) moderate restriction in activities of daily living; (2) moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) one or two repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 265. Dr. Edmunds did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 266. Dr. Edmunds thus assessed Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) (R. at 251-54) and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (3) perform activities within a schedule, maintain regular attendance, and be punctual within customary tolerances; (4) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; (5) interact appropriately with the general public; (6) maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; (7) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting; and to (8) set realistic goals or to make plans independently of others. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 251-52.

         In assessing Plaintiff's mental RFC, Dr. Edmunds opined:

[Plaintiff] meets various personal needs and daily living functions from a mental standpoint. This individual manages within a basic routine, with some dependence on others basic needs. Motivation, persistence, A/C, and memory fluctuate due to the effects of mood and distractions from medical conditions and pain. [Plaintiff] is able to understand and follow one and two-step instructions, work independently, and make simple work-related decisions. [Plaintiff] is able to adequately negotiate in the community.
While [Plaintiff] retains the ability to request assistance from others, and to maintain adequate social relations with peers, [Plaintiff] would be expected to have difficulty at times responding to the public and maintaining socially appropriate behavior. [Plaintiff] would be expected to have some difficulty managing changes in environments and task requirements, and in setting useful personal goals.
[Plaintiff] would be expected to perform adequately with structured routine tasks, that require minimal independent decision making, based on history of poor judgment.
Overall, [Plaintiff's RFC] appears compatible with the performance of simple tasks on a prolonged basis.

R. at 253.

         On December 22, 2010, another state agency consultant, M. Prout, again used the PRT to evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listing 12.04. R. at 291-304. The consultant opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listing, Plaintiff's mental impairments caused her to experience (1) mild restriction in activities of daily living; (2) moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 301.

         The consultant did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 302. The consultant thus assessed Plaintiff's mental RFC (R. at 305-08) and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) understand, remember, and carry out detailed instructions; and to (2) interact appropriately with the general public. R. at 305-06. The consultant opined: “[Plaintiff] is capable of understanding and following simple instructions on a sustained basis. [Plaintiff] is capable of adequately interacting with supervisors and coworkers but would have moderate limitations interacting with the general public. Given the above, there are no limitations in adaptation.” R. at 307.

         B. ...


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