United States District Court, D. Maryland
DAVID COPPERTHITE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
December 12, 2016, Margaret Christine Skinner
("Plaintiff") petitioned this court to review the
Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final
decision to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income
("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 (the
"Complaint"). Alter consideration of the Complaint,
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos.
17 and 19), and the response thereto (ECF No. 20). 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. 17) is
DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No.
19) is GRANTED, and the decision of the SSA is AFFIRMED.
filed her first Title XVI application for SSI on January 22,
2009. On August 27. 2010. following denials at the initial
and reconsideration levels, an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ") issued a decision finding that Plaintiff
was not disabled. Plaintiff appealed and the Appeals Council
denied her appeal on October 13, 2011.
filed her second SSI application-the one at issue in this
appeal-on December 28, 2010. which alleged disability
beginning on November 7. 2007. Her second claim was denied
initially and upon reconsideration on February 14 and July
12, 2011. respectively. Subsequently, on August 1, 2011,
Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and, on
November 7, 2012, a hearing was held before a second ALJ. On
January 24, 2013, the second ALJ rendered a decision ruling
that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act (the "Act") as of her
application date. Plaintiff appealed the decision to the
Appeals Council, and on March 10, 2014, the Appeals Council
denied Plaintiffs appeal. Plaintiff appealed, and while
Plaintiffs appeal of the second application was pending in
this Court, Plaintiff filed a third application for SSI and a
third ALJ found that Plaintiff had a disability commencing on
March 18, 2014.
February 2015, this Court granted Defendant's Consent
Motion to Remand regarding Plaintiffs second SSI application,
and the Appeals Council affirmed the third ALJ's finding
of disability as of March 18, 2014 and remanded the second
application to a new ALJ for a hearing in July 2015 to
address the period prior to March 18, 2014. Pursuant to this
Court's remand order, the Appeals Council also directed
the ALJ to evaluate Listing 1.04 and give further
consideration to a treating source opinion.
the remand hearing on February 10, 2016, the new ALJ
evaluated whether Plaintiff was eligible for SSI from August
28, 2010, the day after the first ALJ's decision, through
March 17. 2014, the day before Plaintiff was approved for
benefits based on her third SSI application. On February 26,
2016. the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled prior to
December 23, 2013, but became disabled on that date because
her age category changed. On March 23, 2016, Plaintiff filed
Exceptions with the Appeals Council, and on October 28, 2016,
the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review.
Thus, the decision rendered by the AIJ 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).
December 12, 2016. Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this
Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's
denial of Plaintiffs second disability application regarding
the period between August 28. 2010 and December 23,
2013. On August 14, 2017. Plaintiff filed a
Motion for Summary Judgment. On October 13, 2017, Defendant
filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, to which Plaintiff
responded on October 31, 2017. This matter is now fully
briefed and the Court has reviewed Plaintiffs Motion for
Summary Judgement and Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment, including the response thereto.
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 duly 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)).
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
Determinations and Burden of Proof
order to be eligible for SSI, a claimant must establish that
she is under disability 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 "[her] physical
or mental impairment or impairments are of such a severity
that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but
cannot, considering [her] 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).
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).
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).
two, the ALJ 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)(h), 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)(h), 404.1520(c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii),
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).
to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the
ALJ must assess the claimant's 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).
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 374186, at * 1-9 (July 2, 1996).
To assess credibility, the ALJ should consider factors such
as the claimant's daily activities, treatments she has
received for her symptoms, medications, and any other factors
contributing to functional limitations. Id. at *5.
four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has the ability
to perform past relevant work based on the determined RFC. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If
the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(e), 416.920(a)(4)(iv),
the claimant is unable to resume past relevant work, the ALJ
proceeds to the fifth and final step of the sequential
analysis. During steps one through four of the evaluation,
the claimant has the burden of proof. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920; see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 146 (1987); Radford, 734 F.3d at 291. At step
five, however, the burden of proof shifts to the ALJ to
prove: (1) that there is other work that the claimant can do,
given the claimant's age. education, work experience, and
RFC (as determined at step four), and: (2) that such
alternative work exists in significant numbers in the
national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
416.920(a)(4)(v); see Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-73:
Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir.
2002). If the claimant can perform other work that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy, then the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g)(1), 404.1560(c),
416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot perform other work,
then the claimant is disabled. Id.
instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation
and found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date.
ECF No. 12 at 455. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
had the severe impairments of neck and back disorder,
shoulder pain, asthma, hip pain, synovitis, tenosynovitis,
and borderline obesity. Id. At step three, the ALJ
determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the
severity of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404.
subpt. P. app. 1. Id. at 456. At step four, the ALJ
determined that from August 28, 2010 through March 17, 2014,
Plaintiff had the RFC:
to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a)
except she was limited to unskilled work; she could no more
than occasionally use ramps and stairs; she could do no more
than occasional postural activity, but no crawling, kneeling,
or climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; she could have
no more than occasional exposure to atmospheric irritants,
such as dust, fumes, odors, and gases; she could do no more
than occasional work around moving machinery and no work at
exposed heights; and she could do no pushing or pulling with
the bilateral lower extremities, no more than occasional
overhead reaching bilaterally, and no more than frequent
Id. at 457. Based on the resulting RFC, the ALJ then
determined that Plaintiff was "unable to perform any
past relevant work." Id. at 463. Finally, at
step five, the ALJ found that "[p]rior to December 23,
2013, the date [Plaintiff]'s age category changed,
considering [Plaintiff]'s age, education, work
experience, and [RFC], there were jobs that existed in
significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff]
could have performed" and that "[b]eginning on
December 23, 2013, the date [Plaintiff]'s age category
changed, considering [Plaintiff]'s age. education, work
experience, and [RFC], there are no jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff]
could perform." Id. at 464-65. Accordingly, the
ALJ concluded that Plaintiff "was not disabled prior to
December 23, 2013. but became disabled on that date and has
continued to be disabled through the date of this
decision." Id. at 465.
argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole and raises
three specific allegations of error on appeal: (1) that the
ALJ's step three determination was not supported by
substantial evidence and the ALJ's failure to analyze
Listing 1.04A in accordance with the remand order warrants a
remand; (2) that the ALJ's RFC determination was not
supported by substantial evidence; and (3) that the ALJ
failed to resolve a conflict between the vocational
expert's ("VE") ...