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Johnson v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 24, 2017

Jean R. Johnson
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         Dear Counsel:

         On December 15, 2016, Plaintiff Jean R. Johnson 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. (ECF Nos. 15, 16). 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. Johnson filed her claims for DIB and SSI on October 26, 2012 and November 6, 2012, respectively. (Tr. 298-99, 300-05). She alleged a disability onset date of April 28, 2011. Id. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 227-244). A hearing was held on November 17, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 153-190). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Johnson was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 8-25). Thereafter, Ms. Johnson requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 26). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Johnson's request for review, so the ALJ's 2015 decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr. 1-7).

         The ALJ found that Ms. Johnson suffered from the severe impairments of “Fibromyalgia, Pancreatitis, Hypothyroidism, Obesity, and Affective Disorder.” (Tr. 13). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Johnson retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and the claimant is limited to routine, repetitive, unskilled tasks and occasional interaction with supervisors.

(Tr.15). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Johnson could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 18-19).

         Ms. Johnson raises two arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ erroneously assessed her RFC; and (2) that the ALJ failed to apply the proper legal standard in discrediting her credibility and subjective evidence of pain. [ECF No. 15-1, 3, 10]. These arguments are addressed below.

         I. Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) Issue

         Ms. Johnson argues that the ALJ erroneously assessed her RFC by: (a) failing to provide an adequate narrative discussion, [ECF No. 15-1, 5-8] (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (stating that the RFC “assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations”)); and (b) failing to include her moderate limitations with regard to “concentration, task persistence, or pace in his [RFC] assessment” in violation of Mascio. [ECF No. 15-1, 8-9]. I agree as to her second argument.

         A. RFC Narrative Discussion

         Social Security regulations require an ALJ to include “a narrative discussion of [the] claimant's symptoms and medical source opinions.” Thomas v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec., 2011 WL 6130605, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 7, 2011). In doing so, an ALJ must “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000), as amended (Dec. 13, 2000). With respect to physical RFC, “[e]xertional capacity addresses an individual's limitations and restrictions of physical strength and defines the individual's remaining abilities to perform each of seven strength demands: [s]itting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *5. Meanwhile, nonexertional capacity considers limitations not dependent on an individual's physical strength including “postural (e.g., stooping, climbing), manipulative (e.g., reaching, handling), visual (seeing), communicative (hearing, speaking), and mental (e.g., understanding and remembering instructions and responding appropriately to supervision)[, ]” activities. Id. at *6.

         Here, the ALJ expressly considered Ms. Johnson's physical and mental abilities throughout his RFC analysis, pursuant to subsections (b) and (c) of 20 C.F.R. 404.1545. First, incorporating nonmedical evidence into his analysis, the ALJ considered Ms. Johnson's daily activities of: (1) having “no problem” completing personal care tasks; (2) driving three to four times a week; (3) shopping with her sister once or twice a month; (4) shopping for groceries once a month; (4) weeding and planting flowers; (5) putting dishes in the dishwasher; (6) sweeping and vacuuming; and (7) walking her dog daily. (Tr. 16). Second, the ALJ relied heavily on Ms. Johnson's medical records, which consistently: (1) “fail[ed] to establish limitations in range of motion, strength, sensation, etc.;” (2) documented “normal physical and respiratory examinations;” (3) revealed normal “pulmonary function[ing];” and (4) provided no indication of “gross functional impairment.” (Tr. 16-17). The evidence cited by the ALJ thus fully supports his finding that Ms. Johnson can perform “light work.”

         B. Mascio Issue

         Ms. Johnson next argues that the ALJ's opinion violates Mascio v. Colvin. [ECF No. 15-1, 8-9]. In Mascio, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that remand was appropriate for three distinct reasons, including, as pertinent to this case, the inadequacy of the ALJ's evaluation of “moderate difficulties” in concentration, persistence, or pace. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 638. At step three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ determines 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 12.00 et. seq., pertain to mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00. The relevant listings therein consist of: (1) a brief statement describing a subject disorder; (2) “paragraph A criteria, ” which consists of a set of medical findings; and (3) “paragraph B criteria, ...

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