United States District Court, D. Maryland
1, 2016, Plaintiff Brian James petitioned this Court to
review the Social Security Administration's final
decision to deny his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
and Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I have
considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. (ECF Nos. 17, 23). In addition, I have reviewed
Plaintiff's supplemental briefing regarding the impact of
the Fourth Circuit's recent decision in Lewis v.
Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858 (4th Cir. 2017), and the
Commissioner's response thereto. (ECF Nos. 24, 25). 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 decision. This
letter explains my rationale.
James filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on March 24, 2010. (Tr. 119-29). He
alleged a disability onset date of July 1, 2008. Id.
His claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
91-96, 99-102). A hearing was held on December 3, 2012,
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr.
26-68). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr.
James was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 9-25). The
Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Mr. James's
request for review. (Tr. 1-6). However, on appeal, this Court
remanded the case for further consideration. (Tr. 757-59). A
second hearing was held on December 22, 2015. (Tr. 705-56).
Following that hearing, on March 25, 2016, the ALJ again
determined that Mr. James was not disabled during the
relevant time frame. (Tr. 678-704). The AC denied Mr.
James's request for review, (Tr. 659-60), so the
ALJ's 2016 decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. James suffered from the severe impairments of
“bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, atrial fibrillation,
type 2 diabetes mellitus (insulin dependent), degenerative
disc disease, and bipolar disorder.” (Tr. 683). Despite
these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. James retained
the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except no climbing of ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; occasional climbing of stairs or ramps; occasional
stooping, crouching, crawling, or kneeling; frequent
bilateral handling, or grasping; and work limited to simple,
routine tasks with few, if any, workplace changes and
occasional interaction with the public.
(Tr. 685). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. James
could perform work existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, he was not disabled.
appeal, Mr. James argues that the ALJ failed to properly
evaluate the medical source opinions. (ECF No. 17, pp.
10-18). I also asked the parties to consider whether the case
was impacted by the recent ruling in Lewis. After
reviewing the parties' supplemental submissions, I am
persuaded that Lewis does not require remand of this
case because the ALJ adequately assessed Mr. James's
credibility. Also, the ALJ properly assigned weight to the
background, on June 2, 2017, the United States Court of
Appeals for the Fourth Circuit published its opinion in
Lewis. The Fourth Circuit determined that remand was
required, in part, because “[t]he ALJ's decision
applied an improper legal standard to discredit [the
claimant's] [credibility].” Lewis, 858
F.3d at 870. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit held that the
ALJ improperly discounted the claimant's subjective
complaints “based solely on the lack of objective
evidence” supporting the claimant's assertions.
Id. at 866. Social Security regulations do not
permit an ALJ to “reject [a claimant's] statements
about the intensity and persistence of  pain or other
symptoms or about the effect [those] symptoms have on [a
claimant's] ability to work solely because the
available objective medical evidence does not substantiate
[his or her] statements.” Id. (citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(2), 416.929(c)(2)) (emphasis
added); see SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *1
(“An individual's statements about the intensity
and persistence of pain or other symptoms or about the effect
the symptoms have on his or her ability to work may not be
disregarded solely because they are not substantiated by
objective medical evidence.”). Rather, the Fourth
Circuit emphasized that the ALJ failed to “explain in
his decision what statements by [the claimant] undercut [the]
subjective evidence…as limiting [the claimant's]
functional capacity.” Lewis, 858 F.3d at
866. Accordingly, the Lewis Court
determined that remand was necessary because the ALJ failed
to cite sufficient evidence of the claimant's own
statements to discredit her credibility.
case, the ALJ found that Mr. James's statements regarding
his symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Tr.
686). Mr. James argues that the ALJ failed to “explain
in her decision what statements by [Mr. James] undercut his
subjective [statements], ” and that, therefore, remand
is warranted. [ECF No. 24, p. 4');">p. 4]. However, the Commissioner
contends that Lewis does not require an ALJ to
support an adverse credibility finding with evidence of a
claimant's subjective statements. [ECF No. 25, p. 4');">p. 4].
Instead, the Commissioner argues that the support of other
record evidence, such as medical opinion evidence and
treatment records, independently satisfies the Fourth
Circuit's mandate in Lewis. Id.
(arguing that “Lewis has no bearing on this
case because the ALJ identified proper rationale in support
of the credibility finding other than just objective medical
evidence, noting that treatment for Plaintiff's
musculoskeletal issues had been conservative; [and] that
Plaintiff cited [the treating physician's] opinion to
support his claim that he could not perform even sedentary
work, but that opinion was based on expected absenteeism and
the ALJ found that the opinion was not credible or
persuasive[.]”). Regardless, the Commissioner contends
that, even if Mr. James were correct, the ALJ properly
assessed Mr. James's credibility based on his subjective
precise scope of the Lewis ruling need not be
determined in the instant case because the ALJ expressly
cited sufficient evidence of Mr. James's subjective
statements to discount his credibility. Specifically, the ALJ
in this case relied on several of Mr. James's own
statements to find that his claims were inconsistent with his
allegations of physical and mental symptoms, and explained
how his statements were inconsistent with his claims. For
example, the ALJ noted that Mr. James reported he “was
doing ‘relatively well' with good sleep and self
esteem[.]” (Tr. 688); see, e.g.,
id. (noting Mr. James's admission that he
“was feeling well”); (Tr. 689) (noting a follow
up examination in which Mr. James admitted he was still doing
“relatively well”); (Tr. 690) (noting that Mr.
James's admitted he “was generally doing well and
denied any cardiovascular symptoms”). In addition, the
ALJ noted Mr. James's admission that “his blood
sugar levels were ‘great, '” “that he
had been motivated to stay active, ” and that he was
compliant with his medications. (Tr. 688). Moreover,
the ALJ noted that, although “[Mr. James] testified to
experiencing significantly debilitating fatigue, [he] did not
report this to his various treatment providers to possibly
try another course of treatment.” (Tr. 692).
Furthermore, the ALJ noted that although Mr. James had
testified to “living in a shelter environment[,
]…he reported to Dr. Fishburne that he lived with his
fiancée.” Id. Thus, the ALJ adequately
“explain[ed] in [her] decision what statements by [Mr.
James] undercut [the] subjective evidence…as limiting
[his] functional capacity.” Lewis, 858 F.3d at
866. Moreover, the ALJ provided substantial objective record
evidence to support her conclusion. See (Tr.
685-90); see also SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *6
(noting that “the absence of objective medical evidence
supporting an individual's statements about the intensity
and persistence of pain or other symptoms is  one factor
that the adjudicator must consider in assessing an
individual's credibility.”); see Hines v.
Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 565 n. 3 (4th Cir. 2006)
(citation omitted). Accordingly, the ALJ properly assessed
Mr. James's credibility. Remand on this basis is
Lewis Court also found remand appropriate because
the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the opinions of the
treating physicians. Lewis, 858 F.3d at 866-68.
Specifically, the Fourth Circuit determined that the ALJ
failed to adequately explain why he did not assign the
opinions of the claimant's treating physicians
controlling weight. Id. 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.
Lewis, 858 F.3d at 867 (citing 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2)). Social Security
regulations require an ALJ to assign “more
weight” to a treating physician's opinion
“[w]hen the treating source has seen [the claimant] a
number of times and long enough to have obtained a
longitudinal picture of [the claimant's]
impairment[.]” Id. 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
Lewis, the ALJ assigned “partial weight”
to the opinions of the treating physicians. See
Lewis, 858 F.3d at 867. However, the Fourth Circuit
determined that “[t]he ALJ offered no record evidence
supporting that conclusion.” Id. In so
holding, the Fourth Circuit noted that the ALJ failed to cite
evidence “that any non-treating sources disputed that
the medical opinions of [the treating physicians] were not
‘well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques.'” Id.
(citation omitted). In addition, the Fourth Circuit noted
that “the ALJ's analysis span[ned] only four lines
and overlook[ed] critical aspects of [the claimant's]
medical treatment history, ” such as the consistency of
the treating physicians' opinions. Id. Moreover,
the Fourth Circuit noted that “all of the medical
professionals who examined [the claimant], ” including
several State agency consultants, “provided opinions
consistent with her treating physicians[.]”
Id. at 868. Ultimately, the Lewis Court
held that the ALJ “substituted a subjective decision
for that of the overwhelming medical evidence” and
“fail[ed] to appreciate the consistent prognosis of
[the claimant's] treating physicians in contravention of
the mandate that ‘controlling weight' be accorded
to such opinions.” Id. Consequently, the
Fourth Circuit determined that remand was warranted.
instant case is distinguishable, and does not require remand,
because the ALJ properly evaluated the opinion of the
treating physician, Dr. Smith. Dr. Smith opined that Mr.
James had “mild limitation of activities of daily
living; marked limitation of social functioning and
concentration, persistence, and pace; and three episodes of
decompensation, each of extended duration.” (Tr. 688)
(internal citation and quotation marks omitted). In addition,
Dr. Smith opined that “[Mr. James] had a depressive
syndrome with anhedonia, sleep disturbance, decreased energy,
and difficulty thinking or concentrating, as well as a manic
syndrome with easy distractibility and ‘involvement in
activities that have a high probability of painful
consequences which are not recognized.'”
Id. Moreover, Dr. Smith opined that “[Mr.
James's] ability was ‘poor to none' in terms of
following work rules, relating to co-workers, dealing with
the public, using judgment with the public, interacting with
supervisors, dealing with work stress, functioning
independently, maintaining attention and concentration, and
understanding, remembering, and carrying out even simple job
assigned Dr. Smith's opinion “little weight”
because it was inconsistent with the medical evidence. (Tr.
691). Most significantly, the ALJ noted that “[Dr.
Smith's] highly restrictive findings [were] not
consistent with his treatment notes throughout 2012, which
routinely indicated that [Mr. James] was stable and compliant
with his medications.” Id. Indeed, Dr.
Smith's treatment notes belie the severity of his
findings. For example, Dr. Smith noted that Mr. James was
“doing relatively well, ” maintained
“pretty good” self-esteem, demonstrated a
“[p]leasant, relaxed” disposition, and enjoyed a
“10/10” mood. (Tr. 625). Dr. Smith also noted
that Mr. James was compliant with his medications, (Tr.
626-28), and reported “feeling stable” despite
his symptoms, (Tr. 636). In addition, the ALJ noted that
“[Dr. Smith's] notes [did] not provide support for
[his] assertion that [Mr. James] experienced a manic syndrome
with easy distractibility[.]” (Tr. 691).
Moreover, the ALJ found no evidence to support Dr.
Smith's opinion that Mr. James was
“‘involve[d] in activities that have a high
probability of painful consequences which are not
recognized.'” Id. To the contrary, the ALJ
noted that “[t]here [was] no documentation of
involvement in such activities at any point in the
record[.]” Id. Furthermore, Dr. Smith's