Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
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.

Skinner v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 20, 2017

MARGARET CHRISTINE SKINNER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner. Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. DAVID COPPERTHITE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         On 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.

         Procedural History

         Plaintiff 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.

         Plaintiff 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.

         In 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.

         Following 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).

         On 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.[1] 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.

         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 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)).

         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 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).

         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 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), 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 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 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.

         At step 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), 416.920(e).

         Where 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.

         ALJ Determination

         In the 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 fingering.

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.

         Discussion

         Plaintiff" 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") ...


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.