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McIver v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 4, 2017

Ricky McIver
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security

          Lawrence P. Demuth, Esq. Theodore Anthony Melanson, Esq. Mignini, Raab & Demuth, LLP

          Amy C. Rigney, Esq. Social Security Administration



         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before this court, by the parties' consent (ECF Nos. 7, 8), are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Plaintiff's Motion”) (ECF No. 22), Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Defendant's Motion”) (ECF No. 24), Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 25), and Defendant's Reply to Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 30). The undersigned must uphold the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if proper legal standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by statute, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2). I have reviewed the pleadings and the record in this case and find that no hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 105.6. For the reasons noted below, plaintiff's motion (ECF Nos. 22, 25) and defendant's motion (ECF No. 24, 30) are denied, the Commissioner's decision is reversed, and the case is remanded to the Commissioner for further consideration in accordance with this opinion.

         I. Background

         On March 8, 2011, plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (R. at 125-28, 119-24.) On March 31, 2011, plaintiff also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. (Id.) In both applications, plaintiff alleged disability beginning on June 1, 2009. (R. at 119-28, 138.) His claims were initially denied on May 6, 2011 (R. at 20-41), and on reconsideration on February 6, 2013. (R. at 42-48.) After a hearing held on January 27, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision on February 13, 2015 denying benefits based on a determination that plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 9-19.)

         The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on June 7, 2016 making the ALJ's opinion the final and reviewable decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 5-8.) Plaintiff challenges the Commissioner's decision on the grounds that: (1) the ALJ's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) determination was not supported by substantial evidence, and (2) the ALJ's determination that plaintiff's impairment was not severe enough to meet or medically equal any listed impairment was not supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 22 at 9-20, 20-26.)

         II. Discussion

         First, plaintiff argues that the ALJ's assessment of plaintiff's RFC was not supported by substantial evidence. In particular, plaintiff alleges that (1) the ALJ afforded little weight to plaintiff's treating physician without properly explaining why and (2) the ALJ, in light of Lewis v. Berryhill, applied an improper legal standard to discredit plaintiff's subjective symptoms and credibility. (ECF No. 22 at 10-17 and ECF No. 25 at 2-11); Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858 (4th Cir. 2017). The ALJ must generally give more weight to a treating physician's opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2). Where a treating physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, however, the ALJ should afford it significantly less weight. Id.; Lewis, 858 F.3d at 867. If the ALJ does not give a treating source's opinion controlling weight, the ALJ must assign weight after considering several factors, including the length and nature of the treatment relationship, the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by the record as a whole, and any other factors that support or contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1)-(6), 416.927(c)(1)-(6). Moreover, the ALJ is never required to give controlling weight to a treating physician's opinion on the ultimate issue of disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e); 416.927(e).

         Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. Joseph, treated plaintiff from 2013 through 2015. (R. at 235, 240, 256-78.) Over the course of his treatment, Dr. Joseph assessed that plaintiff was limited to less than a full range of sedentary work due to chronic back pain. Id. The ALJ afforded this opinion significantly less weight because it was inconsistent with other substantial evidence. (R. at 16-17.) Specifically, the ALJ discussed two other medical opinions which were inconsistent with Dr. Joseph's opinion. Id. First, the ALJ discussed the medical records from Dr. Quainoo, a consultative examiner, who found that plaintiff had good lumbar flexion, had sufficient grip strength, normal range of motion of all joints and a normal gait, and that the plaintiff did not use an ambulatory device as of the examination date in January of 2013. (R. at 237-39.) Dr. Quianoo concluded that though the plaintiff had chronic back pain, there was “no evidence of gross functional impairment.” Id. Second, the ALJ discussed the medical records from Dr. Reddy, a second consultative examiner, who found that plaintiff had full strength in his upper and lower extremities with slight back pain when raising his legs as of the examination date in October of 2014. (R. at 243-44.) Additionally, Dr. Reddy observed plaintiff being able to walk, normally dress/undress, bend, and not require an ambulatory device. Id. Neither consultative examiner concluded that the back pain rose to the level of functionally impairing the claimant. To the contrary, their records discuss plaintiff's ability to engage in normal physical tasks without difficulty and mention back pain as being present, but not as severely limiting. (R. at 235-244.)

         In affording plaintiff's treating physician's opinion significantly less weight, the ALJ discussed a variety of the necessary factors, including the examining relationship, supportability, and the consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole. The ALJ need not mechanically discuss every factor when choosing to afford a treating physicians opinion less weight. See Baxter v. Astrue, 2012 WL 32567, at *6 (D. Md. Jan. 4, 2012). In Lewis, the Fourth Circuit noted that the ALJ is “required to give ‘controlling weight' to opinions proffered by a claimant's treating physician so long as the opinion . . . is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the case record.” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 867. Here, the opinion of the claimant's treating physician was inconsistent with two consultative examiners. The ALJ properly considered the necessary factors and evaluated the evidence as a whole before rendering his decision to afford little weight to Dr. Joseph's opinion. See Ward v. Berryhill, No. ADC-16-3443, 2017 WL 4838749 (D. Md. Oct. 24, 2017) (finding ALJ appropriately declined to give controlling weight to treating physician's opinions where two non-treating medical experts' opinions contradicted them). Accordingly, because the ALJ's decision was supported by “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” this court finds the ALJ's determination to afford less weight to Dr. Joseph's opinion to be supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).

         With respect to plaintiff's challenge of the ALJ's analysis of plaintiff's credibility and subjective symptoms, plaintiff relies on the Fourth Circuit's recent holding in Lewis. “‘In determining the credibility of the individual's statements, the adjudicator must consider the entire case record, including the objective medical evidence, the individual's own statements about symptoms, statements and other information provided by treating or examining physicians ... and any other relevant evidence in the case record.' SSR 96-7P, 1996 WL 374186, at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). An ALJ, however, cannot rely exclusively on objective evidence to undermine a claimant's subjective assertions of disabling pain.” Hinton v. Berryhill, No. MJG-16-4043, 2017 WL 4404441, at *3 (D. Md. Oct. 4, 2017) (citing Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 866 (4th Cir. 2017) (holding that the ALJ improperly discounted the claimant's subjective complaints “based solely on the lack of objective evidence” supporting the claimant's assertions)).

         Here, the ALJ found that plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause his alleged symptoms, yet determined that plaintiff's “statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely ...

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