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Walls v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 29, 2017

ARETHA WALLS, 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 Aretha Walls 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. 15) and 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. 15) is GRANTED.

         I .

         Background

         Plaintiff was born in 1969, has a high-school education, and previously worked as an accounts payable clerk. R. at 22. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on August 8, 2012, alleging disability beginning on May 13, 2012 (later amended to October 1, 2012), due to heart problems, damaged nerves, knee injury, and lung disease. R. at 14, 100-01, 146. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 48-72, 75-79. On September 8, 2014, ALJ Irving A. Pianin held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 29-47. On October 15, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the amended alleged onset date of disability of October 1, 2012, 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 December 22, 2015. R. at 1-10. 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 May 1, 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 ALJ's Decision

         On October 15, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of disability of October 1, 2012; and (2) had an impairment or a combination of impairments considered to be “severe” on the basis of the requirements in the Code of Federal Regulations; but (3) did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments meeting or equaling one of the impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; and (4) was able to perform her past relevant work as an accounts payable clerk; and (5) could perform other work in the national economy, such an order clerk, information clerk, or office clerk. R. at 16-23. The ALJ thus found that she was not disabled from October 1, 2012, through the date of the decision. R. at 23. In so finding, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except she can perform no more than occasional postural activity, with no climbing, and no exposure to heights or hazards involved.” R. at 18. The ALJ found that Plaintiff's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [her] statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.” R. at 19. “Primarily, the record reflects that [Plaintiff] has required only conservative treatment with medications and injections for her back and knee impairments, thus far.” R. at 19.

         III

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         The Social Security Act defines a disability as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. A claimant has a disability when the claimant is “not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists . . . in significant numbers either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         To determine whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25, 124 S.Ct. 376, 379-80 (2003). “If at any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be made, the [Commissioner] will not review the claim further.” Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24, 124 S.Ct. at 379; see 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The claimant has the burden of production and proof ...


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