United States District Court, D. Maryland
December 27, 2016, Plaintiff Essie Lee Peake petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 15, 17]. 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 my rationale.
Peake filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) on July 11, 2012. (Tr. 155-59). She
alleged a disability onset date of May 8, 2012. Id.
Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
93-96, 98-99). A hearing was held on June 24, 2015, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 45-72).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Peake was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 18-44). The Appeals
Council denied Ms. Peake's request for review, (Tr. 1-7),
so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Peake suffered from the severe impairments of
left wrist fracture, hypertension, and varicose veins. (Tr.
24). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Peake retained the residual functional capacity
perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except
she can perform frequent handling and fingering with the
non-dominant left upper extremity. The claimant should avoid
industrial hazards, including heights and dangerous
machinery. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
(Tr. 26). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Peake
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. 37-39).
Peake raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ failed to find her alleged depression to be a severe
impairment or to include depression-related limitations in
the RFC assessment; and (2) that the ALJ assigned inadequate
weight to the medical opinions of the treating physician, Dr.
Burroughs. [ECF 15-1, pp. 5-10]. Each argument lacks merit
and is addressed below.
Ms. Peake contends that the ALJ erred by not determining that
her depression constitutes a severe impairment. Id.
at pp. 5-9. An impairment is considered “severe”
if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to
work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The claimant
bears the burden of proving that her impairment is severe.
See Johnson v. Astrue, 2012 WL 203397, at *2 (D. Md.
Jan. 23, 2012) (citing Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200,
1203 (4th Cir. 1995)). Here, the ALJ thoroughly considered
Ms. Peake's depression at Step Two. (Tr. 24). Most
significantly, the ALJ noted that Ms. Peake's
“mental status examinations showed only minimal or no
abnormalities, ” and that her “treatment notes
[did] not demonstrate any significant limitation in
functioning” due to her depression. Id. The
ALJ also noted that Ms. Peake's “condition remained
relatively stable over time.” Id. Moreover,
the ALJ cited the State psychological consultant's
determination that Ms. Peake “had only ‘mild'
restriction of activities of daily living, ‘mild'
difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and
‘mild' difficulties in maintaining concentration,
persistence, or pace[.]” (Tr. 24-25). Accordingly, the
ALJ fairly concluded that Ms. Peake's depression had no
more than a minimal effect on her ability to work.
Id. Moreover, even if the ALJ had erred in his
evaluation of Ms. Peake's depression at Step Two, such
error would be harmless. Because Ms. Peake made the threshold
showing that her left wrist fracture, hypertension, and
varicose veins constituted severe impairments, the ALJ
continued with the sequential evaluation process and properly
considered all of the impairments, both severe and
non-severe, that significantly impacted Ms. Peake's
ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1523. Any
Step Two error, then, does not necessitate remand.
addition, the ALJ's RFC analysis sufficiently explains
why there are no depression-related limitations in the RFC
assessment. The ALJ explained: “Though the claimant has
received psychiatric treatment, her mental status remained
stable with medications and therapy, and she maintained her
usual activities of daily living without particular
assistance.” (Tr. 34). Moreover, the ALJ addressed Ms.
Peake's GAF scores and contrasted them with “fairly
benign mental status examinations and conservative
treatment.” (Tr. 36). In light of the analysis provided
by the ALJ citing substantial evidence, the RFC assessment is
Ms. Peake contends that the ALJ failed to give proper weight
to the opinions of her treating physician, Dr. Burroughs.
[ECF 15-1, pp. 9-10]. 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. §
404.1527(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.
§§ 404.1527(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
to Ms. Peake's argument, the ALJ properly evaluated Dr.
Burroughs's opinions. Dr. Burroughs opined that Ms. Peake
had “symptoms consistent with a Major Depressive
Disorder” and “experience[d] decreased energy,
insomnia, decreased motivation, anxiety, guilt, and
occasional hallucinatory experiences.” (Tr. 362). In
addition, Dr. Burroughs opined that Ms. Peake “had
‘extreme' difficulty in carrying out detailed
instructions and maintaining attention and concentration for
extended periods; working in proximity to others; completing
a normal workweek; and performing at a consistent
pace.” (Tr. 35); see (Tr. 360). Moreover, Dr.
Burroughs opined that Ms. Peake had
“‘moderate' difficulties in carrying out even
short and simple instructions, sustaining a routine, making
simple work-related decisions, completing a normal workday,
responding appropriately to changes in work setting, setting
goals independently, and in social functioning
generally.” (Tr. 35, 360-61). Furthermore, Dr.
Burroughs opined that Ms. Peake “was disabled from
December 13, 2013, through December 13, 2015.” (Tr.
assigned Dr. Burroughs's opinions “little”
and “no” weight because they were inconsistent
with the medical evidence. Id. (assigning
“little” weight to Dr. Burroughs's Mental
Capacity Assessment, and “no weight” to Dr.
Burroughs's Medical Report Form). As an initial matter,
Dr. Burroughs issued these opinions only fifteen days after
she began treating Ms. Peake. (Tr. 360-62, 371-72). As a
result, her treatment relationship supports an assignment of
lesser weight, since she lacks the type of longitudinal
relationship warranting greater deference. Lang v.
Astrue, Civ. No. TJS-11-1909, 2013 WL 425064, at *3 (D.
Md. Feb. 1, 2013) (characterizing a five-month treating
relationship as “short-term” and “far from
substantial”). Additionally, Dr. Burroughs's Mental
Capacity Assessment and Medical Report Form consist of brief
“checkbox form opinion[s]” that provide limited
opportunity for narrative assessment or citation to the
medical record. (Tr. 35); see Brown ex rel. A.W. v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No. CIV. SAG-12-52,
2013 WL 823371, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 5, 2013) (noting that
“it would be difficult for an ALJ to assign any
meaningful weight to opinions devoid of evidentiary
support”); see also Beitzell v.
Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. CIV.
SAG-12-2669, 2013 WL 3155443, at *3 (D. Md. June 18, 2013)
(upholding the ALJ's assignment of weight and noting that
the treating physician's assessment “provided no
narrative explanation for the limitations proposed in the
form”). Regardless, the ALJ noted that Dr.
Burroughs's Mental Capacity Assessment was
“inconsistent with [Ms. Peake's] mental status
examinations showing either no or only mild abnormalities,
including normal concentration and memory, good eye contact,
and cooperative attitude.” (Tr. 35). Moreover, the ALJ
noted that Ms. Peake's admitted daily activities were in
“stark contrast to the extensive limitations assessed
by Dr. Burroughs.” Id. (noting Ms. Peake's
admission that “she had friends and left the house
regularly for household needs”). Furthermore, regarding
Dr. Burroughs's Medical Report Form, the ALJ assigned
“no weight” to Dr. Burroughs's conclusion
that Ms. Peake was disabled, noting that her determination
“express[es] an opinion on the ultimate issue of
disability, which is an administrative finding reserved to
the [ALJ].” Id. These inconsistencies, in
addition to others cited by the ALJ, provide sufficient
justification for the ALJ's decision to accord
“little” and “no” weight to Dr.
Peake also argues that the ALJ failed to consider the factors
outlined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(6) when
assigning weight to Dr. Burroughs's opinions. The
regulations require an ALJ to assess several factors when
determining what weight to assign to the medical opinions
presented. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). These factors
include: the examining relationship between the physician and
the claimant; the treatment relationship between the
physician and the claimant; the specialization of the
physician; the consistency of a medical opinion with the
record as a whole; and the extent to which a medical opinion
is supported by evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c)(1)-(5). Upon review of the record, I find that
the ALJ properly considered the factors required under the
regulations. Specifically, the ALJ cited Dr. Burroughs's
medical records, which denote her status as Ms. Peake's
treating physician, and indicate that she has treated Ms.
Peake since February 4, 2014. (Tr. 35); see (Tr.
362, 371). The ALJ then found that Dr. Burroughs's
opinions were inconsistent with the medical evidence. (Tr.
35). Considering the entirety of the ALJ's
analysis, I find that the ALJ properly applied the
regulations in assigning weight to Dr. Burroughs's
opinions, and that his findings are supported by substantial
reasons set forth herein, Ms. Peake's Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 15) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17) is ...