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Vinson v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 16, 2018

Danielle T. Vinson
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

          STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Dear Counsel:

         On March 22, 2017, Plaintiff Danielle T. Vinson petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment [ECF Nos. 15, 18], and 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. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny both motions, reverse the Commissioner's decision, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further consideration. This letter explains my rationale.

         Ms. Vinson filed her claims for DIB and SSI on May 18, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2011. (Tr. 244-56). Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 171-78, 184-87). A hearing was held on December 2, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 63-120). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Vinson was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 43-62). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Vinson's request for review, (Tr. 1-7), so the ALJ's 2016 decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Vinson suffered from the severe impairments of “COPD; obesity; degenerative disc disease; imperforate anus (resulting in colostomy bag); sacral agenesis; sleep apnea; ulnar neuropathy and CTS (left hand); [and] depression.” (Tr. 49). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Vinson 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 do work that occasionally requires kneeling, crouching and crawling, and frequently requires balancing, stooping, and climbing (except never requires the use of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds). She can perform jobs that allow frequent exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, humidity, vibration, and occasional exposure to irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas. She can perform jobs that allow frequent handling and fingering with her left hand. Because of her mental impairments, she can perform jobs consisting of unskilled, routine, and repetitive tasks; time off task during workday can be accommodated by normal breaks.

(Tr. 51). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Vinson could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 55-56).

         Ms. Vinson raises four arguments on appeal, specifically that the ALJ erroneously: (1) assessed her credibility; (2) failed to give controlling weight to the opinions of her treating physician; (3) assessed her RFC in violation of Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015); and (4) evaluated the effects of her obesity. [ECF No. 15-1]. Each argument is addressed below.

         I. The ALJ's Credibility Finding

         Ms. Vinson argues that the ALJ erred in concluding that her allegations regarding the intensity and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 51-52); [ECF No. 15-1 at 14-15]. In this Circuit, it is well-established that an ALJ must follow a two-step process for assessing a claimant's assertions about her impairments and symptoms. Craig, 76 F.3d at 594-96. First, the ALJ must determine whether there is objective evidence showing the existence of a medical impairment that reasonably could be expected to cause the alleged pain. Id. at 594 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.929(b), 404.1529(b)). Second, the ALJ must evaluate the “intensity and persistence of the claimant's pain, and the extent to which it affects the claimant's ability to work.” Id. at 595. To determine the credibility of the individual's statements, the ALJ “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). Importantly, an ALJ must “articulate which of a claimant's individual statements are credible, rather than whether the claimant is credible as a general matter.” Bostrom v. Colvin, 134 F.Supp.3d 952, 960 (D. Md. 2015) (quoting Armani v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. JMC-14-CV-976, 2015 WL 2062183, at *1 (D. Md. May 1, 2015)). Here, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Vinson's “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms[, ]” but that her “statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms [were] not entirely credible.” (Tr. 51-52). Ms. Vinson contends that the ALJ erred in the second prong of the two-part test, because he failed to “explain which of [her alleged] symptoms that he found to be inconsistent with the evidence in the record (or not credible) and how the evaluation of the symptoms led to that conclusion.” [ECF No. 15-1 at 15].

         I agree that the ALJ erred in finding that Ms. Vinson was “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 51-52). Here, the ALJ failed to address the veracity of Ms. Vinson's complaints of “constant and chronic back pain, ” which allegedly caused a “limited ability to stand and walk.” (Tr. 51-55). Instead, in discounting Ms. Vinson's credibility and allegations regarding the intensity and limiting effects of her symptoms, the ALJ relied only on objective medical evidence. The ALJ cited several medical records which demonstrated that Ms. Vinson: (1) “was alert and oriented, with appropriate thought content[;]” (2) “displayed normal musculoskeletal range of motion without edema[;]” (3) “exhibited good strength in the lower extremities bilaterally and [] moved all extremities well[;]” and (4) “exhibited normal cognitive skill, insight, orientation, memory, and thought content.” (Tr. 52-53). Because, however, Ms. Vinson's individual allegations of chronic back pain are material to the “intensity and persistence of [her] pain, and the extent to which it affects [her] ability to work, ” the ALJ erred in completely failing to analyze the veracity of these allegations. See Bostrom, 134 F.Supp. at 960 (stating that an ALJ must “articulate which of a claimant's individual statements are credible, rather than whether the claimant is credible as a general matter.”) (quoting Armani, No. JMC-14-CV-976, 2015 WL 2062183, at *1); Mascio, 780 F.3d at 640 (“Nowhere, however, does the ALJ explain how he decided which of [the claimant's] statements to believe and which to discredit, other than the vague (and circular) boilerplate statement that he did not believe any claims of limitations beyond what he found when considering [the claimant's] residual functional capacity.”); Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 866 (4th Cir. 2017) (holding that an ALJ cannot rely exclusively on objective evidence to undermine a claimant's subjective assertions of disabling pain).

         On remand, in evaluating Ms. Vinson's credibility, the ALJ should look beyond the objective medical evidence and also consider her subjective complaints, including those of “chronic and constant back pain.” In remanding the case for additional explanation, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Ms. Vinson is not entitled to benefits is correct.

         II. Opinions of Ms. Vinson's Treating Physician

         Ms. Vinson next argues that the ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Beth Barnet. [ECF No. 15-1 at 13-14]. A treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight when two conditions are met: (1) it is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical laboratory diagnostic techniques; and (2) it is consistent with other substantial evidence in the record. See Craig, 76 F.3d at 590 (citation omitted); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(2). However, where a treating source's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight. Craig, 76 F.3d at 590. If the ALJ does not give a treating source's opinion controlling weight, the ALJ will assign weight after applying several factors, such as ...


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