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Ward v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 24, 2017

KRAIG DOUGLAS WARD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration. Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. DAVID COPPERTHITE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         On October 14. 2016, Kraig Ward ("Plaintiff") petitioned this court to review the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 ('the Complaint"). After consideration of the Complaint and the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 18-19) and Plaintiffs response to Defendant's motion, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). In addition, for the reasons that follow. Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 19) is GRANTED, and the decision of the Social Security Administration is AFFIRMED.

         Procedural History

         On December 16, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for SSI. alleging disability beginning on December 31, 2009. His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on April 20, 2011 and October 14, 2011. respectively. Subsequently, on November 30, 2011, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and, on January 23, 2013, a hearing was held in Dover, Delaware before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). On April 5, 2013, the ALJ rendered a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's disability determination and, on June 20, 2014, the Appeals Council vacated the 2013 hearing decision and remanded the case for further administrative action, including an opportunity for a supplemental hearing and issuance of a new decision. A remand hearing was held in Dover, Delaware on March 25, 2015, and on April 29, 2015, the ALJ again denied Plaintiffs claim for SSI, ruling that Plaintiff "ha[d] not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act [("the Act'')] since December 16, 2010. the date the application was filed." ECF No. 12-3 at 14. Plaintiff filed another appeal, and on August 30, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. Thus, the decision rendered by the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481 (2017); see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On October 14, 2016, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiffs disability application.[1] On June 16, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. On August 18, 2017, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and Plaintiff filed a response. This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, and Plaintiffs Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         Standard of Review

         "This Court is authorized to review the Commissioner's denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g)." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citation omitted). The Court, however, does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence. Instead, the Court's review of an SSA decision is deferential, as "[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996) ("The duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court."); Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343. 345 (4th Cir. 1986) ("We do not conduct a de novo review of the evidence, and the Secretary's finding of non-disability is to be upheld, even if the court disagrees, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence." (citations omitted)). Therefore, the issue before the reviewing court "'is not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [Plaintiff] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) ("Under the [Act], [a reviewing court] must uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." (citations omitted)).

         Substantial evidence means "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted): see Hancock v. Astrue. 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). It "consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Smith, 99 F.3d at 638. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ." Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal citations omitted). Therefore, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court shall determine whether the ALJ has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to that evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         In order to be eligible for SSI, a claimant must establish that he is disabled within the meaning of the Act. The term "disability, " for purposes of the Act, is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. A claimant shall be determined to be under disability where "his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such a severity that he 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 the national economy." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ, acting on behalf of the Commissioner, follows the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003). The evaluation process is sequential, meaning that "[i|f 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; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one. the ALJ considers the claimant's work activity to determine if the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b).

         At step two, the AU considers whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment [or combination of impairments] that meets the duration requirement." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments meeting the durational requirement (of twelve months, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(c).

         At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of the claimant's age. education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford v. Colvin. 734 F.3d288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Prior to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must assess the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), which is then used at the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). RFC is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ must consider even those impairments that are not "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).

         In determining RFC, the ALJ evaluates the claimant's subjective symptoms (e.g., allegations of pain) using a two-part test. Craig, 76 F.3d at 594; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. First, the ALJ must determine whether objective evidence shows the existence of a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the actual alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Once the claimant makes that threshold showing, the ALJ must evaluate the extent to which the symptoms limit the claimant's capacity to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1). At this second stage, the ALJ must consider all of the available evidence, including medical history, objective medical evidence, and statements by the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). The ALJ must assess the credibility of the claimant's statements, as symptoms can sometimes manifest at a greater level of severity of impairment than is shown by solely objective medical evidence. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL ...


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