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Chavis v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 26, 2018

EUGENIA CHAVIS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner. Social Security Administration. Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge.

         On 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.

         Procedural History

         On 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, 106-07(2000).

         On April 24, 2017. Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiffs disability applications.[1] Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on November 7. 2017 and Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on January 12, 2018.[2] 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.

         Standard of Review

         "This 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)).

         Substantial 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 Cir. 1997).

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         In 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).

         In 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).

         At step 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).

         At step 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), 416.920(c).

         At step 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).

         Prior 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).

         In 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.

         At step 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). 416.920(e).

         Where 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.

         ALJ Determination

         In the 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.

         Discussion

         Plaintiff 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 addressed below.

         A. The ALJ's Findings Regarding Plaintiffs Medically Determinable And Disabling Severe Impairments Were Proper.

         Plaintiff 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.

         Although 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."'[3] 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 determination.[4]

         B. Substantial Evidence Supports The ALJ's Determination That Plaintiff Does Not Meet Listing 1.02.

         At step 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 (1990).

         "In 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).

         Remand 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").

         Here. 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 ambulate ...

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