United States District Court, D. Maryland
April 24, 2017, Plaintiff Timothy William Hays petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his claim for Supplemental Security
Income. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 18, 19]. 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 Plaintiff's motion, grant the Commissioner's
motion, and affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant
to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405. This letter
explains my rationale.
Hays protectively filed his claim for benefits on January 30,
2014, alleging a disability onset date of December 20, 2013.
(Tr. 179-84). His claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 109-12, 116-17). A hearing was held on
March 8, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 34-69). Following the hearing, on
April 5, 2016, the ALJ determined that Mr. Hays was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 20-29). The Appeals Council
denied Mr. Hays's request for further review, (Tr. 1-6),
so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Hays suffered from the severe impairment of
“degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with
radiculopathy and sacroiliitis.” (Tr. 22). Despite this
impairment, the ALJ determined that Mr. Hays retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except he
can lift 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally. The
claimant can sit 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and stand
and/or walk 4 hours in an 8-hour workday. He can never climb
ladders, ropes or scaffolds and can occasionally climb
stairs/ramps, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He is
limited to occasional exposure to vibrations. Due to possible
side effects of medications, he can occasionally conduct
commercial driving requiring a commercial driver's
license, and be exposed to dangerous hazards, such as
uncovered moving industrial machinery and unprotected
(Tr. 23). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Hays
could perform several jobs existing in significant numbers in
the national economy. (Tr. 27-28). Accordingly, the ALJ found
that Mr. Hays was not disabled. (Tr. 28-29).
Hays raises several arguments in support of his appeal: (1)
the ALJ lacked support for the conclusions in the RFC
assessment; (2) the ALJ failed to consider an MRI report from
April 17, 2014; (3) the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to the
opinion of Mr. Hays's treating physician, Dr. Shahab
Siddiqui; and (4) the ALJ erred in reaching an adverse
credibility assessment. None of those arguments prevails, for
the reasons described below.
Mr. Hays protests several of the conclusions in the ALJ's
RFC assessment, including the finding that he is capable of
standing/walking for four hours in a workday, the finding
that he is capable of work requiring a commercial
driver's license, and the absence of a sit/stand option.
Pl. Mot. 6-8. Beginning with the driver's license, even
if the ALJ's finding was erroneous, the error is
harmless, because the ALJ identified multiple prospective
jobs that do not involve driving. (Tr. 28) (identifying jobs
including router and laundry sorter). With respect to the
other two conclusions, the ALJ cited to substantial evidence
that supports each limitation. Specifically, the ALJ assigned
“great weight” to the opinions of the two State
agency medical consultants, both of whom found that Mr. Hays
could stand and walk for six, not four, hours in an
eight-hour workday. (Tr. 26). Additionally, the ALJ observed
that Mr. Hays was able to sit during the hearing for 40
minutes, and noted that Mr. Hays's back treatment
“has been relatively limited and conservative
overall.” (Tr. 25). This Court's role is not to
reweigh the evidence or to substitute its judgment for that
of the ALJ, but simply to adjudicate whether the ALJ's
decision was supported by substantial evidence. See Hays
v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
Considering the evidence cited by the ALJ, particularly the
opinions of the State agency medical consultants, I find that
the RFC assessment was supported by substantial evidence.
Mr. Hays argues that the ALJ failed to consider an MRI report
from April 17, 2014, reflecting that his back condition had
worsened since an earlier MRI report. Pl. Mot. 8. However, an
ALJ is not required to address every piece of evidence in the
record, so long as a reviewing court can determine from the
opinion “what the ALJ did and why [s]he did it.”
Piney Mountain Coal Co. v. Mays, 176 F.3d 753, 762
n.10 (4th Cir. 1999) (citing Lane Hollow Coal Co. v.
Dir., Office of Workers' Comp. Programs, 137 F.3d
799, 803 (4th Cir. 1998)); see also Melgarejo v.
Astrue, No. JKS 08-3140, 2009 WL 5030706, at *4 (D. Md.
Dec. 15, 2009) (holding that an ALJ's duty to explain his
findings and conclusions on all material issues of fact or
law is satisfied when a reviewing court can determine, from
an ALJ's opinion and the evidence of record, how he
reached his conclusion). Here, although the ALJ made no
reference to the April 17, 2014 MRI, the ALJ considered
evidence of Mr. Hays's medical condition both before and
after that MRI. See, e.g., (Tr. 24) (citing
treatment records from March 6, 2014, and June 26, 2014, in
which Mr. Hays reported “reasonable pain
control”); (Tr. 25) (citing treatment records from July
21, 2015 through January 7, 2016, in which Mr. Hays reported
that he was “happy with his level of pain
control”). The objective findings from the MRI alone do
not establish any particular functional capacity or
limitations. In light of the medical evidence and reports
cited by the ALJ, the failure to mention the 2014 MRI is not
Mr. Hays contends that the ALJ should have assigned more
weight to the opinion of his treating physician, Dr.
Siddiqui. Pl. Mot. 8-13. A treating physician's opinion
is given controlling weight, unless it is not supported by
clinical evidence or is inconsistent with other substantial
evidence. See 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,
including 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). The Commissioner must also 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.”). The ALJ assigned Dr. Siddiqui's opinion
“partial weight, ” but noted that Dr. Siddiqui
“has only treated the claimant since 2011 and appears
to have relied heavily on the claimant's self-reported
history, which is not fully consistent with the record for
reasons stated above.” (Tr. 26). Initially, I note that
assigning lesser weight to the November 7, 2013 assessment
because Dr. Siddiqui had only treated the claimant since 2011
is not warranted. Two years of treatment is sufficient to
establish a relationship as a treating physician, unless the
sessions are extremely infrequent. However, the ALJ's
remaining rationale, in the context of this case, suffices to
validate his assignment of “partial weight” to
Dr. Siddiqui's opinion. The opinion, generated prior to
the alleged onset date and more than two years before the
ALJ's consideration of the claims, describes a far more
dire situation than is reflected in the other medical
evidence. For example, while Dr. Siddiqui suggests that Mr.
Hays would require “complete freedom to rest frequently
throughout the day, ” (Tr. 26), the ALJ cited medical
evidence (including the records from the Spine Center cited
by Dr. Siddiqui) suggesting that conservative pain management
resulted in acceptable pain control, (Tr. 24, 25).
Accordingly, the ALJ adequately explained the assignment of
“partial weight, ” and remand is unwarranted.
Mr. Hays suggests that the ALJ's credibility analysis
violated Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858 (4th Cir.
2017). In Lewis, the Fourth Circuit held that the
ALJ improperly discounted the claimant's subjective
assertions “based solely on the lack of objective
evidence” supporting the claimant's assertions. 858
F.3d at 866. Social Security regulations do not permit an ALJ
to “reject [a claimant's] statements about the
intensity and persistence of [his] pain or other symptoms or
about the effect [his] symptoms have on [his] ability to work
solely because the available objective medical evidence does
not substantiate [his] statements.” Id.
(citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(2),
416.929(c)(2)); see also SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186,
at *5 (“An individual's statements about the
intensity and persistence of pain or other symptoms or about
the effect the symptoms have on his or her ability to work
may not be disregarded solely because they are not
substantiated by objective medical evidence.”). To
determine the credibility of the claimant's statements,
the ALJ should also “consider factors such as the
claimant's daily activities, treatments [he] has received
for [his] symptoms, medications, and any other factors
contributing to functional limitations.” Hardy v.
Berryhill, Civil Action No. ADC-16-3709, 2017 WL
3917010, at *3 (D. Md. Sept. 6, 2017) (citation omitted).
Here, the ALJ engaged in an appropriate assessment of Mr.
Hays's credibility. The ALJ cited Mr. Hays's own
statements regarding the effectiveness of conservative
treatment, along with the results of physical examinations,
Mr. Hays's sporadic work history, his ability to sit
throughout a 40-minute hearing, and the lack of either
clinical findings or a medical recommendation requiring use
of an assistive device for ambulation. (Tr. 25). Due to the
ALJ's consideration of both objective and subjective
evidence, the credibility finding must be affirmed.
reasons set forth above, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment [ECF No. 18] is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment [ECF No. 19] is GRANTED. The Clerk is
directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as