United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-captioned case has been
referred to me to review the parties' dispositive motions
and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). [ECF No. 3]. I have
considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment and the related filings. [ECF Nos. 11, 13, 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); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I recommend that
Mr. Hinton's motion be denied, that the
Commissioner's motion be granted, and that the
Commissioner's judgment be affirmed pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Hinton protectively filed a claim for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) on October 4, 2012, alleging a
disability onset date of November 7, 2011. (Tr. 145-46). His
claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
90-93, 97-88). A hearing was held on May 4, 2015, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 30-59).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Hinton was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 13-29). The Appeals
Council (“AC”) denied Mr. Hinton's request
for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes
the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Hinton suffered from the severe impairments of
“residuals of lumbar fusion surgery and a disorder of
the right shoulder.” (Tr. 18). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Hinton retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he
can no more than occasionally push and/or pull bilaterally;
no more than occasionally operate foot controls bilaterally;
never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, or crawl; no more
than occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, and
crouch; no more than frequently reach bilaterally, but never
reach overhead with the right shoulder, and no more than
occasionally reach overhead with the left shoulder; and he
must avoid exposure to workplace hazards being unprotected
machinery and unprotected heights.
(Tr. 20). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Hinton
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. 23-24).
Hinton raises two primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ failed to properly weigh the medical opinion evidence;
and (2) that the ALJ erred in assessing his credibility. Each
argument lacks merit and is addressed below.
Mr. Hinton contends that the ALJ failed to give proper weight
to the opinions of his treating physician, Dr. Steadman. [ECF
No. 11-1, at pp. 9-12]. Generally, 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 at 590; 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, 1996 WL 374180,
at *3 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996) (“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 sources.”).
to Mr. Hinton's argument, the ALJ properly evaluated Dr.
Steadman's opinions. Dr. Steadman opined that Mr. Hinton
suffered from “extensive degeneration of his lumbar
discs, several herniated discs causing nerve root
compression, lumbar spondylosis and extensive facet
arthropathy.” (Tr. 528). Dr. Steadman also opined that
Mr. Hinton had “chronic low back pain, muscle spasms
and limited range of motion related to his condition.”
Id. Based on his findings, Dr. Steadman opined that
Mr. Hinton “could sit for only one hour in an
eight-hour workday, stand and/or walk for one hour in an
eight-hour workday, would have to get up every fifteen
minutes and move around, and never lift more than twenty
pounds, push, pull, kneel, bend, and stoop.” (Tr. 22);
see (Tr. 493-99). Furthermore, Dr. Steadman opined
on December 5, 2013, and again on May 1, 2015, that Mr.
Hinton was “permanently disabled due to [an] inability
to sit, stand, or walk for prolonged periods.” (Tr.
22); see (Tr. 500, 528).
assigned Dr. Steadman's opinions “little”
weight because they were inconsistent with the medical
evidence. (Tr. 22). In particular, the ALJ noted that Dr.
Steadman's opinions were “inconsistent with the
objective clinical findings of Dr. Weingart in July
2014.” Id. Based on his observations during
examinations on April 18, 2013, and on May 30, 2013, Dr.
Weingart noted that Mr. Hinton was “making
progress” and that his preoperative symptoms were
“dramatically better.” (Tr. 347); see
(Tr. 21). Moreover, during a follow-up appointment on June
19, 2013, Dr. Weingart noted that Mr. Hinton “states he
is doing well and rarely needs to take his pain
medication” and “denies any weakness, numbness
and tingling and states he is able to ambulate without
difficulty.” (Tr. 415); see (Tr. 21). After
examination on July 10, 2014, Dr. Weingart observed that Mr.
Hinton had “full power in all four extremities”
and deemed Mr. Hinton “clinically stable.” (Tr.
22); see (Tr. 529). The ALJ concluded that Dr.
Steadman's “findings regarding [Mr. Hinton's]
status post back surgery are not as credible as those of Dr.
Weingart, the claimant's treating neurosurgeon.”
(Tr. 22). These inconsistencies, in addition to others cited
by the ALJ, provide sufficient justification for the
ALJ's decision to accord “little” weight to
Dr. Steadman's opinions.
Hinton 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. Steadman'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. Steadman's
medical records, which denote her status as Mr. Hinton's
treating physician, and indicate that she has treated Mr.
Hinton since May 18, 2011. (Tr. 21). The ALJ then found that
Dr. Steadman's opinions were inconsistent with the
medical evidence. (Tr. 22). Citing Dr.
Steadman's lack of specialization, the ALJ further opined
that Dr. Steadman's findings were less credible than
those of Mr. Hinton's treating neurosurgeon, Dr.
Weingart. Id. Considering the entirety of the
ALJ's analysis, I find that the ALJ properly applied the
regulations in assigning weight to Dr. Steadman's
opinions, and that her findings are supported by substantial
Mr. Hinton contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate
his credibility. “In determining the credibility of the
individual's statements, the adjudicator must consider
the entire case record, including the objective medical
evidence, the individual's own statements about symptoms,
statements and other information provided by treating or
examining physicians . . . and any other relevant evidence in
the case record.” SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186, at *1
(S.S.A. July 2, 1996). An ALJ, however, cannot rely
exclusively on objective evidence to undermine a
claimant's subjective assertions of disabling pain.
See Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 866 (4th Cir.
2017) (holding that the ALJ improperly discounted the
claimant's subjective complaints “based solely on
the lack of objective evidence” supporting the
to Mr. Hinton's contention, the ALJ properly evaluated
his credibility. First, the ALJ correctly cited to Mr.
Hinton's refusal to take pain medication as evidence that
his pain was not as severe as he alleged. The ALJ opined that
Mr. Hinton's “disinterest in seeking out modalities
by which to better manage his pain levels” indicated
that “his symptoms were better controlled than he has
alleged.” (Tr. 22-23). See Mickles v. Shalala,
29 F.3d 918, 930 (4th Cir. 1994) (“[A]n unexplained
inconsistency between the claimant's characterization of
the severity of her condition and the treatment she sought to
alleviate that condition is highly probative of the
claimant's credibility”); see also Groves v.
Colvin, Civil No. JKS-13-083, 2014 WL 900818, at *4 (D.
Md. March 6, 2014) (concluding that the claimant's
“fear of addiction does not justify her selective
refusal to take certain medications as prescribed”);
Muir v. Astrue, Civil No. Civ. SKG-11-2041, 2013 WL
140779, at *8 (D. Md. Jan. 3, 2013) (“Use of only
over-the-counter pain medication is viable evidence that a
plaintiff's testimony regarding her pain was not
the ALJ opined that Mr. Hinton's subjective evidence of
pain was undercut by her observations during the hearing. The
ALJ noted that Mr. Hinton “testified that he could sit
for only ten to fifteen minutes, but was able to sit for
approximately twenty-seven minutes during the hearing without
a break.” (Tr. 23). Moreover, the ALJ noted that Mr.
Hinton “testified about right upper extremity
limitations, while simultaneously lifting his right arm above
shoulder to level to demonstrate.” Id.
Finally, the ALJ cited Mr. Hinton's examination records,
which revealed a “lack of follow-up treatment after his
surgery, and the normal clinical findings following
surgery.” Id. Ultimately, the ALJ's
detailed evaluation of the record evidence against Mr.
Hinton's statements regarding his symptoms ...