United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher, United States Magistrate Judge.
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-captioned case has been
referred to me to review the parties' dispositive motions
and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). [ECF No. 6]. 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. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th
Cir. 1987). For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that
Ms. Owens's motion be denied, that the Commissioner's
motion be granted, and that the Commissioner's judgment
be affirmed pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
Owens filed her applications for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on December 18, 2012, originally alleging
disability beginning November 30, 2009. (Tr. 250-53,
254-59); see Pl. Mot. 1. Her applications were
denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 153-84,
196-99). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held
a hearing on August 12, 2015, at which Ms. Owens testified
and had a representative. (Tr. 37-112). Following the hearing
and review of the representative's post- hearing brief,
the ALJ determined that Ms. Owens was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 8-36). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Owens's
request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's 2015 decision
constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Owens suffered from the severe impairments of
“bipolar disorder; alcohol dependence; anxiety
disorder; osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, lumbar
spine, and hands; and obesity.” (Tr. 14). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Owens retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
Perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except she can only occasionally climb, balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She is further limited to
unskilled, routine, and repetitive tasks. She can have no
interaction with the public and only occasional interaction
(Tr. 20). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Owens
could perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper and
other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national
economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr.
Owens raises two arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ
assigned insufficient weight to the opinions of her treating
therapist, Tracey Middleton, LCSW-C; and (2) that the ALJ
attributed too much weight to the opinions of “one-
time [sic] consultative examining physicians and
non-examining State Agency physicians.” Pl. Mot. 9-13.
Both arguments lack merit.
Ms. Owens argues that the ALJ assigned insufficient weight to
the opinions rendered by her treating therapist, Ms.
Middleton. Id. at 8-12. Social Security regulations
distinguish between “acceptable medical sources”
and “other healthcare providers who are not acceptable
medical sources, ” including LCSWs, because, among
other reasons, only acceptable medical sources can offer
“medical opinions.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1513, 404.1527(a)(2), 416.913, 416.927(a)(2); SSR 06-03p,
2006 WL 2329939, at *1-2 (S.S.A. Aug. 9, 2006). SSR 06-03p,
which was in effect at the time Ms. Owens's claims were
filed, explains that, “[a]lthough the factors set forth
in 20 C.F.R. 404.1527(d) and 416.927(d) explicitly apply only
to the evaluation of opinions from ‘acceptable medical
sources, ' these same factors can be applied to opinion
evidence from ‘other sources.'” SSR 06-03p,
2006 WL 2329939, at *4. Those factors generally include the
length and nature of the treatment relationship, the degree
to which the 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). Here, the ALJ
considered those factors in evaluating Ms. Middleton's
opinions. First, the ALJ noted that Ms. Middleton had treated
Ms. Owens since early 2014. (Tr. 16-17). The ALJ also noted
that Ms. Middleton is not an acceptable medical source. (Tr.
29). More importantly, however, the ALJ correctly noted that
Ms. Middleton's opinions were not only inconsistent with
other evidence of record, but with her own treatment notes.
Id. During the total of six appointments evidenced
in the record with Ms. Middleton prior to her March 20, 2015
opinion, Ms. Owens either appeared under the influence of
alcohol (on December 23, 2014, and January 20, 2015), (Tr.
919-24), or exhibited relatively minor symptoms (on February
18, 2015, March 4, 2015, and March 18, 2015), (Tr. 910-18),
with the exception of the single appointment on March 30,
2015, at which Ms. Middleton filled out the disability form
and Ms. Owens demonstrated more significant impairment, (Tr.
908-09). The few subsequent appointments continued the
pattern of Ms. Owens demonstrating mild or no symptoms.
See, e.g., (Tr. 898-900) (June 17, 2015 appointment,
at which Ms. Owens “denied depressive symptoms, ”
had intact insight, judgment, and thought processes, and a
pleasant, happy affect”); (Tr. 901-03) (May 20, 2015
appointment, at which Ms. Owens reported mood swings but
“denied any anxiety or depressive symptoms” and
presented with intact insight, judgment, and thought
processes and euthymic mood).
my review of the ALJ's decision is confined to whether
substantial evidence, in the record as it was reviewed by the
ALJ, supports the decision and whether correct legal
standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 390, 404 (1971). Even if there is other
evidence that may support Ms. Owens's position, I am not
permitted to reweigh the evidence or to substitute my own
judgment for that of the ALJ§. See Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Applying
those standards, because the ALJ expressly cited the
“contemporaneous treatment notes” outlined above,
I conclude that the ALJ's assignment of little weight was
supported by substantial evidence.
Ms. Owens contends that the Commissioner assigned too much
weight to the opinions of consultative examiners and State
Agency non-examining physicians. Pl. Mot. 11-13. In reaching
a decision, the Commissioner must consider, and is entitled
to rely on, opinions from non-treating doctors. See
SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *3 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996)
(“In appropriate circumstances, opinions from State
agency medical and psychological consultants and other
program physicians and psychologists may be entitled to
greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining
sources.”). Ms. Owens correctly notes an inconsistency
in the ALJ's evaluation, where at one point the ALJ
indicates that he is giving the opinions “great
weight” and then subsequently assigns two of the
opinions only “partial weight.” (Tr. 28). The
ALJ, however, provided an explanation for the assessment of
“partial weight, ” citing to Ms. Owens's
testimony and other evidence, and generally accepted the
opinions of each of those physicians. Id. Ms. Owens
also contends that the consultative evaluation by Dr.
Rossello “supports a finding that Ms. Owens is unable
to meet the mental demands of unskilled work.” Pl. Mot.
12. While it is correct that Ms. Owens exhibited some manic
symptoms in her consultative appointment, Dr. Rossello's
overall opinion indicated that the symptoms could be
“secondary to alcohol” and that her mental health
“could improve with abstinence.” (Tr. 503-04).
Dr. Rossello's opinion therefore supported the ALJ's
conclusion that Ms. Owens's frequent alcohol intoxication
had a significant effect on her mental health symptoms.
See (Tr. 29). Thus, the ALJ properly evaluated the
opinions of the consultative examiners and the non-examining
physicians, and supported his findings with substantial
reasons set forth above, I respectfully recommend that:
1. the Court GRANT Defendant's Motion for Summary