United States District Court, D. Maryland
February 21, 2017, Plaintiff Lonnie Applefeld petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny his claims for benefits. [ECF No. 1].
I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. [ECF Nos. 15, 18]. 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); see also Craig v. Chater, 76
F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will
deny Mr. Applefeld's motion, grant the Commissioner's
motion, and affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant
to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Applefeld filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefitss
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on November 9, 2010, alleging a
disability onset date of August 1, 2008. (Tr. 275-78,
279-87). His claims were denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 68-95, 96-125). A hearing was held on
May 16, 2013, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 218, 220). Following that hearing,
on July 26, 2013, the ALJ determined that Mr. Applefeld was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 126-45). The Appeals
Council (“AC”) granted Mr. Applefeld's
request for review and remanded his claims for further
proceedings. (Tr. 146-47). Another hearing was held on April
21, 2015. (Tr. 26-67). The ALJ subsequently issued a new
decision, again finding that Mr. Applefeld was not disabled.
(Tr. 9-25). This time, the AC denied Mr. Applefeld's
request for review, (Tr. 1-5), so the ALJ's 2015 decision
constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Mr. Applefeld suffered from the severe impairments
of “obesity; degenerative disc disease; left knee
degenerative joint disease and meniscus tear status post
arthroscopy; umbilical hernia status post repair; gout;
bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome status post repair; bipolar
disorder; depression; anxiety; and alcohol abuse.” (Tr.
15). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr.
Applefeld retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except he needs the option to change positions
from sitting to standing approximately every 30 minutes, can
frequently crouch, kneel, crawl, and climb stairs, but only
occasionally stoop, and must never climb
ladders/ropes/scaffolds. He can understand, remember, and
carry out only simple instructions, and can perform simple,
routine, and repetitive tasks with occasional changes in the
work setting and occasional required interaction with the
public, supervisors, and coworkers.
17). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert
(“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Applefeld
could perform several jobs existing in significant numbers in
the national economy. (Tr. 24). Accordingly, the ALJ
determined that Mr. Applefeld was not disabled. (Tr. 25).
Applefeld raises several issues on appeal, including that the
ALJ: (1) erroneously performed the Listing analysis; (2)
improperly concluded that his diagnoses of hyperlipidemia and
hypothyroidism were non-severe; (3) failed to properly
evaluate his credibility in accordance with Lewis v.
Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858 (4th Cir. 2017); (4) failed to
perform a function-by-function analysis with respect to his
neuromuscular and mental health symptoms; (5) failed to
properly assess the opinions of treating physician, Dr. Lelin
Chao, and his friend, Cheryl Fellows; and (6) erred in her
evaluation of the VE's testimony. Pl. Mot. 7-26. Each
argument lacks merit and is addressed below.
Mr. Applefeld argues that the ALJ failed to adequately assess
whether his impairments met or equaled the criteria set forth
in Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint) and 1.04
(disorders of the spine). Step three of the sequential
evaluation requires the ALJ to determine whether a
claimant's impairments meet or medically equal the
criteria of any listings set forth in 20 C.F.R., Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1. To meet a medical listing,
“every element of the listing must be satisfied.”
Huntington v. Apfel, 101 F.Supp.2d 384, 391 (D. Md.
2000). The ALJ “should include a discussion of which
evidence [she] found credible and why, and specific
application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record
evidence.” Fox v. Colvin, 632 F. App'x
750, 755 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Radford v. Colvin,
734 F.3d 288, 291-92 (4th Cir. 2013)). Importantly, it is not
my role to “engage in an analysis that the ALJ should
have done in the first instance.” Id. Rather,
the ALJ must provide sufficient reasoning to “reveal
why [she] was making [her] decision.”
Id. Contrary to Mr. Applefeld's argument, the
ALJ properly assessed Mr. Applefeld's impairments with
respect to Listings 1.02 and 1.04. In her Listing 1.04
analysis, the ALJ found that “the objective evidence
simply fails to indicate that [Mr. Applefeld] has the
requisite findings or level of functional loss based on a
musculoskeletal impairment required by the Listings,
including the inability to ambulate effectively, as
defined in 1.00B2b.” (Tr. 15) (emphasis added).
Moreover, in her Listing 1.02 analysis, the ALJ also found
that “the evidence does not demonstrate that [Mr.
Applefeld] has the degree of difficulty in performing fine
and gross movements . . . .” Id. The ALJ,
therefore, expressly considered the criteria in both Listings
1.02 and 1.04, applied these requirements to the record
evidence, and concluded that Mr. Applefeld had not
demonstrated that his impairments met or equaled the criteria
of either listing. See Scott, 2016 WL 6585575, at
Applefeld also argues that the ALJ erred in her assessment of
Listings 12.04 and 12.06. Listings 12.00 et seq.
pertain to mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P,
App. 1 §§ 12.00-12.15 (2015). The relevant listings
therein consist of: (1) a brief statement describing a
subject disorder; (2) “paragraph A criteria, ”
which consists of a set of medical findings; and (3)
“paragraph B criteria, ” which consists of a set
of impairment-related functional limitations. Id.
§ 12.00(A). If both the paragraph A criteria and the
paragraph B criteria are satisfied, the ALJ will determine
that the claimant meets the listed impairment. Id.
Paragraph B consists of four broad functional areas: (1)
activities of daily living; (2) social functioning; (3)
concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) episodes of
decompensation. Id. § 12.00(C). The ALJ employs
the “special technique” to rate a claimant's
degree of limitation in each area, based on the extent to
which the claimant's impairment “interferes with
[the claimant's] ability to function independently,
appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis.”
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(c)(2). The ALJ uses a five-point
scale to rate a claimant's degree of limitation in the
first three areas: none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme.
Id. § 404.1520a(c)(4). To satisfy paragraph B,
a claimant must exhibit either “marked”
limitations in two of the first three areas, or
“marked” limitation in one of the first three
areas with repeated episodes of decompensation. See,
e.g., 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 §§
12.04, 12.06. The ALJ must document the application of the
technique in the hearing decision, incorporating pertinent
findings and conclusions, and documenting the significant
history and functional limitations that were considered.
Id. § 404.1520(e)(4). Here, the ALJ addressed
each of the relevant functional areas, assigned an
appropriate level of restriction for each area, and provided
supporting analysis while citing to the evidence of record.
(Tr. 16-17). Specifically, the ALJ concluded that Mr.
Applefeld suffered “moderate” restriction in
daily living activities, social functioning, and
concentration, persistence, or pace, and has experienced no
episodes of decompensation. Id. In reaching her
conclusion, the ALJ thoroughly discussed and cited to Mr.
Applefeld's hearing testimony and admissions in his
function reports, as well as the third-party function report
provided by his friend, Ms. Fellows. (Tr. 16-17). Even if
there is other evidence that may support Mr. Applefeld's
position, I am not permitted to reweigh the evidence or to
substitute my own judgment for that of the ALJ. Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Thus, in
light of the evidence cited by the ALJ in her listing
analysis, there is no basis for remand.
Mr. Applefeld argues that the ALJ erroneously concluded that
his hypothyroidism and hyperlipidemia were non-severe. An
impairment is considered “severe” if it
significantly limits the claimant's ability to work.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a). The claimant bears
the burden of proving that his impairment is severe. See
Johnson v. Astrue, Civil Action No. PWG-10-3139, 2012 WL
203397, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 23, 2012) (citing Pass v.
Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995)). Here, the
ALJ adequately considered Mr. Applefeld's hypothyroidism
and hyperlipidemia at step two. (Tr. 15). In her step two
analysis, the ALJ cited to treatment records and concluded
that “the medical evidence of record does not indicate
that these impairments impose more than a slight limitation
on [Mr. Applefeld's] ability to perform basic
work-related activities.” Id.; see
(Tr. 813-814) (Exhibit 25F, in which the treating physician
noted “thyroid normal size/shape, ”
“regular [heart] rate and rhythm . . ., no murmur, rub,
or gallop, ” and “no chest or abd pain”).
Accordingly, the ALJ fairly concluded that hypothyroidism and
hyperlipidemia were non-severe. Moreover, even if the ALJ
erred in her evaluation of these impairments at step two,
such error would be harmless. Because Mr. Applefeld made the
threshold showing that his other impairments were severe, the
ALJ continued with the sequential evaluation process and
properly considered all impairments, both severe and
non-severe, that significantly impacted Mr. Applefeld's
ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1523, 416.923. Any step two error, therefore, does not
Mr. Applefeld contends that the ALJ failed to properly
evaluate his credibility in accordance with the Fourth
Circuit's holding in Lewis. Pl. Mot. 14-19.
Specifically, Mr. Applefeld asserts that the ALJ
“fail[ed] to properly consider all relevant positive
findings in the . . . evidence in the record and instead
‘play[ed] doctor' and ‘cherry pick[ed]'
irrelevant findings . . . .” Pl. Mot. 16. In assessing
the credibility of a claimant'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). An ALJ, however,
cannot rely exclusively on objective evidence to undermine a
claimant's subjective assertions of disabling pain.
See Lewis, 858 F.3d at 866 (holding that the ALJ
improperly discounted the claimant's subjective
complaints “based solely on the lack of objective
evidence” supporting the claimant's assertions).
to Mr. Applefeld's argument, the ALJ properly evaluated
his credibility after evaluating medical and non-medical
evidence on the record. First, the ALJ found that, despite
his complaints of disabling functional limitations, Mr.
Applefeld “has engaged in a somewhat normal level of
daily activity and interaction.” (Tr. 21). For example,
the ALJ noted that, based on his own testimony and
statements, Mr. Applefeld's daily living activities
included “driving, light household chores, preparing
simple meals, and performing skilled work on a part-time
basis” during tax season. Id.; see,
e.g., (Tr. 42) (Mr. Applefeld's hearing testimony,
in which he stated that he drove “45 minutes” to
the hearing, and that he was “okay for about that
time”); (Tr. 58) (Mr. Applefeld's hearing
testimony, in which he stated that he was able to do
“simple household chores” and “simple
cooking”); (Tr. 52-53) (Mr. Applefeld's hearing
testimony, in which he stated that he worked as a tax
preparer for three eight-hour days per week during tax
season). Moreover, the ALJ discussed and cited to the medical
evidence, observing that Mr. Applefeld “demonstrated
mostly normal clinical findings at appointments” and
that treatment notes “include no indication of severe
symptoms that would preclude work within the [RFC].”
(Tr. 21). Importantly, “there is no rigid requirement
that the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence in
[her] decision.” Reid v. Comm'r of Soc.
Sec., 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir.
2005)). Again, I am not permitted to reweigh the evidence or
to substitute my own judgment for that of the ALJ.
Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. Ultimately, the ALJ's
evaluation of the record evidence amply supports the
ALJ's conclusion that Mr. Applefeld's alleged
limitations were not entirely credible. Thus, the ALJ
properly evaluated Mr. Applefeld's credibility, and
supported her findings with substantial evidence.
Mr. Applefeld argues that the ALJ failed to perform a
function-by-function analysis related to his neuromuscular
and mental health symptoms, in accordance with Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). Pl. Mot. 19.
Specifically, Mr. Applefeld contends that the ALJ failed to
consider “how often he would be off task from
completing a given job and/or being punctual to or absent
from a job on a regular or unpredictable basis.”
Id. In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit voiced
its agreement with other circuits “that an ALJ does not
account for a claimant's limitations in concentration,
persistence, and pace by restricting the hypothetical
question to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work.”
780 F.3d at 638 (joining the Third, Seventh, Eighth, and
Eleventh Circuits) (citation and internal quotation marks
omitted). The Fourth Circuit explained that “the
ability to perform simple tasks differs from the ability to
stay on task. Only the latter limitation would account for a
claimant's limitation in concentration, persistence, or
pace.” Id. In so holding, however, the Fourth
Circuit noted the possibility that an ALJ could offer an
explanation regarding why a claimant's moderate
limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace, at step
three did not translate into a limitation in the
claimant's RFC assessment, such that the apparent
discrepancy would not constitute reversible error.
at step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Applefeld suffered from
“moderate difficulties” in the area of
concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 17). In the RFC
assessment, the ALJ provided that Mr. Applefeld “can
understand, remember, and carry out only simple instructions,
and can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks with
occasional changes in the work setting and occasional
required interaction with the public, supervisors, and
coworkers.” Id. Although a limitation to
simple, routine, and repetitive tasks alone is insufficient
under Mascio, the ALJ in the instant case explained
that the “evidence supports a conclusion that [Mr.
Applefeld] would be able to work at a regular pace and
maintain focus during the workday for such tasks. . . . [and]
[t]here is thus no support for additional limitations in
persistence or pace.” (Tr. 22). The ALJ, for example,
observed that Mr. Applefeld completed a computer course from
February 2011 until June 2011, “which provided
structure and focus as well as increasing interactions with
others.” Id. Moreover, the ALJ noted that Mr.