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Clarke v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 1, 2017

CARLA RENEE CLARKE, 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 Carla Renee Clarke 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), Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15), and “Plaintiff's Reply to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment” (ECF No. 16).[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 1978, has a high-school education, and previously worked as a receptionist and assistant office manager. R. at 21, 198-99. Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB on August 3, 2012, and for SSI on August 6, 2012, alleging disability beginning on May 1, 2010, due to bipolar disorder, head trauma, a narrowing spine, depression, and high cholesterol. R. at 14, 169-73, 197. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 61-116, 121-38. On December 18, 2014, ALJ Alfred J. Costanzo held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 28-60. On January 23, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset date of disability of May 1, 2010, through the date of the decision. R. at 11-27. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 8, 2016. R. at 1-10, 256-59. 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 April 22, 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. State Agency Medical Consultants

         On October 22, 2012, a state agency consultant, S. Boyer, 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 65-67, 76-78). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 §§ 12.04, 12.08, 12.09. Dr. Boyer opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, 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 66, 77. Dr. Boyer did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 66, 77. Dr. Boyer thus assessed Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) (R. at 68-70, 79-81) 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) accept instructions and to respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and to (7) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 68-69, 79-80.

         On July 11, 2013, a state agency medical consultant, K. Cylus, M.D., assessed Plaintiff's physical RFC. R. at 93-96, 109-12. Dr. Cylus 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 two 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 94, 110. Plaintiff occasionally could balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs (but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds). R. at 94-95, 110-11. Plaintiff's gross manipulation in both hands was limited to occasional handling because of bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. R. at 95, 111. Because of her asthma, Plaintiff also was to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and heat; wetness; humidity; and fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation. R. at 95-96, 111-12. She was to avoid even moderate exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights. R. at 96, 112. Plaintiff had no visual or communicative limitations, however. R. at 95, 111.

         On July 27, 2013, another state agency consultant, Maurice Prout, Ph.D., again used the PRT to evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listings 12.04, 12.08, and 12.09. R. at 91-93, 107-09. Dr. Prout opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listings, 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 91, 107. Dr. Prout did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 91, 107. The consultant thus assessed Plaintiff's mental RFC (R. at 96-98, 112-14) 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) accept instructions and to respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and to (7) respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. R. at 97-98, 113-14. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 96-98, 112-14.

         B. Plaintiff's Testimony

         The ALJ summarized Plaintiff's testimony in his decision:

[Plaintiff] testified that she has limited functioning due [to] a prior traumatic brain injury that causes problems with concentration, focus, memory loss, and depression. She has lower back problems, bilateral [carpal tunnel syndrome] and anxiety attacks. Her back pain radiates down her leg to above her knee. She has shortness of breath when walking.

R. at 19; see R. at 35-54.

         C. ...


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