United States District Court, D. Maryland
David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge.
April 24, 2017, Eugenia Chavis ("Plaintiff")
petitioned this court to review the Social Security
Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny
her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB")
and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI").
See ECF No. 1 (the "Complaint"). After
consideration of the Complaint, the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 15 and 18), and
the response thereto (ECF No. 19). 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. 15) is DENIED. Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) is GRANTED, and the
decision of the SSA is AFFIRMED.
December 21, 2012. Plaintiff filed a Title II application for
a period of disability and DIB and a Title XVI application
for SSI alleging disability beginning on May 16. 2011. Her
claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on
April 30. 2013 and January 14, 2014, respectively.
Subsequently, on February 12, 2014, Plaintiff filed a written
request for a hearing and. on February 25, 2016, a video
hearing was held whereby Plaintiff appeared in Baltimore,
Maryland and an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ")
presided over the hearing from Baltimore. Maryland. On April
12, 2016, the ALJ rendered a decision ruling that Plaintiff
"ha|d| not been under a disability within the meaning of
the Social Security Act [("the Act")] from May 16,
2011, through the date of this decision." See
ECF No. 6 at 30. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an appeal of the
ALJ's disability determination and, on March 2, 2017. the
Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. Thus,
the decision rendered by the ALJ became the final decision of
the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481
(2017); see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103,
April 24, 2017. Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court
seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of
Plaintiffs disability applications. Plaintiff filed a Motion for
Summary Judgment on November 7. 2017 and Defendant filed a
Motion for Summary Judgment on January 12,
2018. 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.
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. Chaler, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir.
1996) ("The duty 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)).
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
Determinations and Burden of Proof
order to be eligible for DIB or 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).
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).
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(aX4)(i). 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b).
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)(ii). 404.1520(c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(H),
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).
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).
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 AIJ 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 AIJ 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 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304. at *1-12 (Oct. 25,
2017). To assess credibility, the AU should consider factors
such as the claimant's ability to perform daily
activities, activities that precipitate or aggravate the
symptoms, medications and treatments used, and other methods
used to alleviate the symptoms. Id. at *6.
four, the AIJ 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).
the claimant is unable to resume past relevant work, the AIJ
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.
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. 6 at 31. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff
had the severe impairments of residuals of reconstructed
feel, residuals of fractured hip, degenerative joint disease,
dysfunction of major joints, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis,
chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and migraine
headaches. 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 32. At step four, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff had the RFC:
to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except [Plaintiff] would be limited to lifting up
to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, standing
and walking for at least two hours, and sitting for up to six
hours in an eight-hour workday with normal breaks.
[Plaintiff] would be limited to never climbing ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally stooping, occasionally
crouching, and frequently climbing ramps or stairs.
[Plaintiff] would need to occasionally avoid exposure to
excessive noise. She would need to occasionally avoid
exposure to environment irritants, such as fumes, odors,
dusts, gases, and poorly ventilated areas. [Plaintiff] would
need to occasionally avoid the use of moving machinery and
exposure to unprotected heights.
Id. at 34. Based on the resulting RFC. the ALJ then
determined that Plaintiff was "unable to perform any
past relevant work." Id. at 39. Finally, at
step five, the ALJ found that "[considering
[Plaintiff]'s age, education, work experience, and [RFC],
there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the
national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform."
Id. at 40. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff "ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined
in [the Act], from May 16, 2011, through the date of this
decision." Id. at 41.
argues that the ALJ's decision is not supported by
substantial evidence on the record as a whole and raises four
specific allegations of error on appeal: (1) that the ALJ was
not clear in his determination of Plaintiffs severe
impairments; (2) that the ALJ did not properly consider
Plaintiff's medical impairments under Listing 1.02; (3)
that the ALJ's RFC determination was not supported by
substantial evidence; and (4) that the ALJ improperly
considered the vocational expert's ("VE")
testimony. Each of Plaintiffs arguments lacks merit and is
ALJ's Findings Regarding Plaintiffs Medically
Determinable And Disabling Severe Impairments Were Proper.
contends that the ALJ failed to conclude or clarify the
presence of medically determinable and disabling severe
impairments. ECF No. 15-1 at 8-9. Specifically. Plaintiff
finds error because the ALJ failed to clarify his findings of
"Dysfunction of Major Joints" and
"Degenerative Joint Disease" and whether they
included Plaintiffs shoulder and hand pain and related
problems. Id. at 9. The Court disagrees.
his step two analysis does not expressly mention whether the
ALJ considered Plaintiffs shoulder and hand pain in finding
that Plaintiff suffered from "dysfunction of major
joints, including [Plaintiffs] knee. hip. and ankle."
and from degenerative joint disease, the ALJ did refer to
"Finding Five" of his opinion. ECF No. 6 at 32.
Within Finding Five, the ALJ discussed Plaintiffs shoulder
pain, stating, "In March 2012, [Plaintiff] presented for
treatment for neck and right shoulder pain following a motor
vehicle collision, but there is no indication that
[Plaintiff] obtained additional treatment for neck or
shoulder pain (Exhibit 15F/15-16)." Id. at 36.
Furthermore, while the ALJ does not specifically reference
Plaintiffs hand pain, in particular, her alleged carpal
tunnel syndrome, the ALJ stated that he carefully considered
the entire record, and absent evidence to the contrary, this
Court should take the ALJ at his word. See Jarvis v.
Berryhill, No. TMD 15-2226, 2017 WL 467736, at *2 (D.Md.
Feb. 3, 2017) ("[T]here is no rigid requirement that the
ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his
decision." (quoting Reid v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec, 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014))). Here, the ALJ
discussed the findings of Dr. Paul Barbera. who mentioned in
his report that Plaintiff "is able to use her hands for
fine and dexterous movements."' ECF No. 6 at 316.
Additionally, the medical records and reports never mention
hand pain, specifically carpal tunnel syndrome, as an alleged
impairment or complaint nor do any of the medical reports or
assessments recommend any reaching, handling, or fingering
limitations for the RFC. In fact, the only mention to
"likely carpal tunnel syndrome." ECF No. 15-1 at 9,
in the record is when Plaintiff herself testified to such
during her hearing before the ALJ. ECF No. 6 at 71-72.
Further, in his discussion of Plaintiffs daily activities,
the ALJ noted that Plaintiff washes dishes. Id. at
36. Accordingly, the ALJ considered Plaintiffs alleged
shoulder and hand pain in reaching his
Substantial Evidence Supports The ALJ's Determination
That Plaintiff Does Not Meet Listing 1.02.
three of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must determine
whether the claimant's impairments meet or equal one or
more of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404. subpt.
P. app. 1. Where a claimant can show that her condition
"meets or equals the listed impairments." the
claimant is entitled to a conclusive presumption that she is
disabled within the meaning of the Act. Bowen v. City of
New York, 476 U.S. 467. 471 (1986); see McNunis v.
Califano, 605 F.2d 743, 744 (4th Cir. 1979) (stating
that the listings, if met, are "conclusive on the issue
of disability"). The burden of proof is on the claimant
to show that she meets all of the specified medical
criteria. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530
evaluating a claimant's impairment, an ALJ must fully
analyze whether a claimant's impairment meets or equals a
'Listing' where there is factual support that a
listing could be met." Huntington v. Apfel, 101
F.Supp.2d 384, 390 (D.Md. 2000) (citing Cook v.
Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168. 1172 (4th Cir. 1986)). However,
"[u]nder Cook, the duty of identification of
relevant listed impairments and comparison of symptoms to
Listing criteria is only triggered if there is ample evidence
in the record to support a determination that the
claimant's impairment meets or equals one of the listed
impairments." Ketcher v. Apfel, 68 F.Supp.2d
629. 645 (D.Md. 1999). "Neither the Social Security law
nor logic commands an ALJ to discuss all or any of the listed
impairments without some significant indication in the record
that the claimant suffers from that impairment."
Id. On the other hand, "[a] necessary predicate
to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the
basis for the ALJ's ruling. The record should include a
discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why,
and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements
to the record evidence." Radford. 734 F.3d at
295 (internal citations omitted).
is appropriate where the "ALJ's opinion failed to
apply the requirements of the listings to the medical
record." Id. at 291-92; see Fox v.
Colvin, 632 Fed.Appx. 750, 755-56 (4th Cir. 2015)
(holding that the ALJ's conclusory and perfunctory
analysis, at step three necessitated remand). In evaluating
whether an ALJ's listing comparison was proper, however,
the Court is not confined to the ALJ's analysis at step
three and instead must consider the reasoning provided by the
ALJ in the decision in its entirety. See Schoofteld v.
Barnhart. 220 I'.Supp.2d 512, 522 (D.Md. 2002)
(holding that remand is not warranted "where it is clear
from the record which [L]isting . . . w[as] considered, and
there is elsewhere in the ALJ's opinion an equivalent
discussion of the medical evidence relevant to the [s]tep
[t]hree analysis which allows [the reviewing c]ourt readily
to determine whether there was substantial evidence to
support the ALJ's [s]tep [t]hree conclusion").
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her
medical impairments under Listing 1.02. Id. at 9.
Listing 1.02 states:
1.02 Major dysfunction of a joint(s) (due to any cause):
Characterized by gross anatomical deformity (e.g.,
subluxation, contracture, bony or fibrous ankylosis,
instability) and chronic joint pain and stiffness with signs
of limitation of motion or other abnormal motion of the
affected joint(s). and findings on appropriate medically
acceptable imaging of joint space narrowing, bony
destruction, or ankylosis of the affected joint(s). With:
A. Involvement of one major peripheral weight-bearing joint
(i.e., hip, knee, or ankle), resulting in inability to