United States District Court, D. Maryland
October 6, 2016, Plaintiff Sonya N. Somerville petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claims for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”). (ECF No. 1). I have considered the
parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and related
filings, including Plaintiff's supplemental briefing
regarding the impact of the Fourth Circuit's recent
decision in Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858 (4th
Cir. 2017). (ECF Nos. 16, 20, 21, 22). 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 both motions, reverse the Commissioner's decision,
and remand the case to the Commissioner for further
consideration. This letter explains my rationale.
Somerville protectively filed her claims for DIB and SSI on
June 24, 2010 and October 21, 2010, respectively. (Tr.
366-74; Tr. 375-83). She alleged a disability onset date of
January 23, 2009. Id. Her claims were denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 156-88). A hearing was
held on November 20, 2012, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 84-151). Following the hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Somerville was not disabled within
the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant
time frame. (Tr. 189-208). The Appeals Council granted Ms.
Somerville's request for review and issued an order
remanding the case to an ALJ. (Tr. 209-13). On February 11,
2015, a hearing was held before a new ALJ. (Tr. 41-83). On
March 25, 2015, the ALJ denied Ms. Somerville's claims
for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 17-40). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Somerville's request for review, so the ALJ's 2015
decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the
Agency. (Tr. 1-6).
found that Ms. Somerville suffered from the severe
impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and
cervical spines, and depression. (Tr. 23). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Somerville retained
the residual functional capacity (“RFC”):
to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except she can occasionally climb ramps and
stairs, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; can
have occasional exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and
hazards, such as moving machinery and heights; and is limited
to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, with no fast pace or
strict production requirements, and only occasional changes
in the work setting.
(Tr. 25). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Somerville could perform jobs existing in significant numbers
in the national economy, and that, therefore, she was not
disabled. (Tr. 32-33).
Somerville raises four primary arguments on appeal: (1) that
the ALJ failed to determine that Ms. Somerville met Medical
Listing 1.04A; (2) that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate
Ms. Somerville's mental impairments pursuant to the
“Special Technique” set out in 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520a and 416.920a; (3) that the ALJ erred
at step two of the sequential evaluation by failing to
properly consider the symptom-related functional limitations
stemming from Ms. Somerville's non-severe impairments;
and (4) that the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal
standard in discrediting Ms. Somerville's evidence of
pain and the opinions of her treating physicians. Pl.'s
Mot. [ECF No. 16, 7-31]; Pl.'s Suppl. Mot. [ECF No. 20].
These arguments are addressed, in turn, below.
Medical Listing Issue 1.04(A)
Somerville argues that the ALJ's medical listing analysis
violated the Fourth Circuit's mandate in Fox v.
Colvin, 632 Fed. App'x. 750 (4th Cir. 2015).
Pl.'s Mot. [ECF No. 16, 7-24]. Step three requires the
ALJ to determine whether a claimant's impairments meet or
medically equal any of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. Listings describe each of
the major body system impairments that the Agency
“consider[s] to be severe enough to prevent an
individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his
or her age, education, or work experience.” 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1525(a). In Fox, the Fourth Circuit held
that the ALJ's medical listing analysis was deficient
because it consisted of conclusory statements and did not
include “any ‘specific application of the
pertinent legal requirements to the record
evidence.'” Id. at 754 (quoting
Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291-92 (4th Cir.
2013)). That is, the ALJ did not apply any findings or
medical evidence to the identified disability listings and
offered nothing to reveal why he was making his decision.
Radford, 734 F.3d at 295. Thus, Fox
requires that an ALJ provide express analysis, with factual
support, to conclude that a medical listing has not been met
at step three. The Fourth Circuit also rejected the notion
that failure to engage in meaningful analysis at step three
could constitute harmless error where the evidence of record
otherwise demonstrated that the claimant did not meet a
listing. Fox, 632 Fed. App'x. at 755. Rather,
the Fox Court emphasized that it is not this
Court's role to “engage in an analysis that the
ALJ should have done in the first instance, ” or
“to speculate as to how the ALJ applied the law to its
findings or to hypothesize the ALJ's justifications that
would perhaps find support in the record.” Id.
The Court noted that it could not conduct a meaningful review
“when there is nothing on which to base a
instant case, regarding his findings at step three of the
sequential evaluation, the ALJ stated, in relevant part:
[Plaintiff's] spinal disorder fails to meet the criteria
of section l.04 in that there is no compromise of a nerve
root or the spinal cord. Nor is there any evidence of nerve
root compression characterized by neuro-anatomic distribution
of pain, limitation or motion of the spine, or motor loss
accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and there is no
positive straight-leg raising test. There is no spinal
archnoiditis, confirmed by an operative note or pathology
report of tissue biopsy, or by appropriate medically
acceptable imaging, manifested by severe burning or painful
dysesthesia, resulting in the need for changes in position or
posture more than once every two hours. The claimant does not
have lumbar spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication,
established by finding on appropriate medically acceptable
imaging, manifested by chronic nonradicular pain and
weakness, and resulting in an inability to ambulate
effectively, as defined in section 1.00B2b.
(Tr. 24). Medical Listing 1.04 is defined as,
“Disorders of the spine … resulting in
compromise of a nerve root … or the spinal cord. With
A. Evidence of nerve root compression … OR B. Spinal
arachnoiditis … OR C. Lumbar spinal stenosis. 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, Section 1.04. In
order to meet a Medical Listing, “every element of the
listing must be satisfied.” Huntington v.
Apfel, 101 F.Supp.2d 384, 391 (D. Md. 2000) (citing
Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 531 (1990)).
the ALJ's analysis contains at least two
misrepresentations of the medical evidence. First, the ALJ
asserts that there is no “evidence of nerve root
compression, ” even though Ms. Somerville's
physician expressly diagnosed “nerve compression”
on one occasion. (Tr. 661). Second, the ALJ stated in his
1.04 analysis that “there is no positive straight-leg
raising test, ” (Tr. 24), but then proceeded to discuss
several positive tests throughout the RFC analysis. (Tr. 26-
27). Ms. Somerville has cited evidence which, in her view,
fulfills the requirements of each of the criteria of Listing
1.04A. Pl.'s Mot. [ECF No. 16, 11-22]. The ALJ's
inaccurate and cursory analysis, by contrast, does not permit
me to understand how he assessed that evidence. For example,
Ms. Somerville cites evidence of motor loss and atrophy in
her calf and ankle. Id. at 16-17. The Commissioner
contends that such motor loss is insufficiently connected to
nerve root compression in the lumbar spine. Def.'s Mot.
[ECF No. 21-1, 11]. However, in the absence of any analysis
by the ALJ, I am unable to understand how, or whether, he
evaluated that evidence. Therefore, like in Fox and
Radford, remand is appropriate for additional
explanation to permit adequate appellate review of the
ALJ's reasoning. In remanding for additional analysis, I
express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate
conclusion that Ms. Somerville does not meet Listing 1.04A
was correct or incorrect.