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Mims v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

August 28, 2017

RANI E. MIMS, 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 Rani E. Mims seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 13), Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16), and Plaintiff's “Reply Brief” (ECF No. 19).[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. 13) is GRANTED.

         I

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1970, has a college education, and previously worked as a flight attendant, computer security specialist, and user support specialist. R. at 29, 193. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on May 28, 2015, alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2013, due to adjustment disorder, depressive disorder, sleep disorder, radiculopathy, and degenerative joint disease. R. at 19, 158-59, 192. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 67-99, 104, 108-11. On February 16, 2016, ALJ Francine L. Applewhite held a hearing in Washington, D.C., at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 36-66. On March 30, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset date of disability of January 1, 2013, through the date of the decision. R. at 16-35. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 23, 2016. R. at 1-6, 2495-2511. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On August 9, 2016, 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. Plaintiff's Disability Rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs

          On May 19, 2015, the Department of Veterans Affairs (the “VA”) found Plaintiff's overall or combined disability rating to be 90%, effective January 1, 2013. R. at 187. The VA found Plaintiff to be “[t]otally disabled as a result of a service-connected disability and the inability to secure or follow a substantially gainful occupation, evaluated at 100%, ” effective January 8, 2015. R. at 181; see R. at 187. The VA found Plaintiff to be entitled to individual unemployability effective January 1, 2013, because she was “unable to secure or follow a substantially gainful occupation as a result of service-connected disabilities.” R. at 185; see 38 C.F.R. § 4.16(a).

         B. State Agency Medical Consultants

         On July 22, 2015, a state agency consultant, A. Serpick, M.D., assessed Plaintiff's physical residual functional capacity (“RFC”). R. at 73-74. Dr. Serpick opined that Plaintiff could (1) lift and/or carry fifty pounds occasionally and twenty-five pounds frequently; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling. R. at 73. Dr. Serpick further opined that, although she only occasionally could climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, Plaintiff had no manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. R. at 74.

         On July 29, 2015, a state agency consultant, D. Walcutt, Ph.D., using the psychiatric review technique (“PRT”) under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a, evaluated Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listings 12.04 and 12.06 relating to affective disorders and anxiety-related disorders (R. at 71-72). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 §§ 12.04, 12.06. Dr. Walcutt 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) one or two repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 71. Dr. Walcutt did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 72. Dr. Walcutt thus assessed Plaintiff's mental RFC (R. at 74-76) and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (2) work in coordination with or in proximity to others without being distracted by them; (3) 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; (4) accept instructions and to respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; (5) maintain socially appropriate behavior and to adhere to basic standards of neatness and cleanliness; and to (6) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 75-76.

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

[Plaintiff] functions in a generally independent fashion and can meet various personal needs from a mental standpoint. [Plaintiff] is capable of completing daily living functions within the constraints of mental and cognitive status. This individual manages within a basic routine. A/C fluctuates at times due to the effects of the conditions. [Plaintiff] appears to have the ability to interact and relate with others socially. [Plaintiff] can adequately negotiate in the general community. [Plaintiff] retains the capacity to perform simple tasks from a mental health perspective.

R. at 76.

         On November 4, 2015, another state agency consultant, Janet Anguas-Keiter, Psy.D., again used the PRT to evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listings 12.04 and 12.06. R. at 86-87. Dr. Anguas-Keiter 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) one or two episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 86. The consultant did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 86. Dr. Anguas-Keiter ultimately affirmed Dr. Walcutt's assessment of Plaintiff's mental RFC. R. at 89-92.

         On November 9, 2015, another state agency consultant, W. Hakkarinen, M.D., again assessed Plaintiff's physical RFC. R. at 88-89. Dr. Hakkarinen opined that Plaintiff could (1) lift and/or carry twenty pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; (2) stand and/or walk for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday; (3) sit for about six hours in an eight-hour workday; and (4) perform unlimited pushing and/or pulling. R. at 88. Dr. Hakkarinen also opined that, although she only occasionally could climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, Plaintiff had no manipulative, visual, communicative, or environmental limitations. R. at 89.

         C. ...


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