Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Somerville v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 4, 2017

Sonya Somerville
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         Dear Counsel:

         On 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).[1] (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.

         Ms. 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).

         The ALJ 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).

         Ms. 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.

         I. Medical Listing Issue 1.04(A)

         Ms. 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 review.” Id.

         In the 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)).

         Here, 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.

         II. “Special ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.