United States District Court, D. Maryland
LONNIE C. WARREN, JR., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.
AMENDED MEMORANDUM OPINION
David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge
March 6, 2017. Lonnie C. Warren, Jr. ("Plaintiff")
petitioned this court to review the Social Security
Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny
his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI").
See ECF No. 1 (the "Complaint"). After
consideration of the Complaint, the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 17-18), 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. 17) is DENIED, Defendant's
Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) is DENIED, and the
decision of the SSA is REMANDED for proceedings consistent
with this opinion.
August 29, 2014, Plaintiff tiled a Title XVI application for
SSI alleging disability beginning on November 15, 1970. His
claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on
November 19, 2014 and February 23, 2015. respectively.
Subsequently, on April 16, 2015. Plaintiff filed a written
request for a hearing and, on September 13, 2016, a hearing
was held before an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ"). On November 16. 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")] since August 29, 2014, the date the
application was filed." ECF No. 11 at 25. Thereafter.
Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's disability
determination and. on January 18. 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).
March 6, 2017, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court
seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of
Plaintiffs disability application. Plaintiff filed a Motion for
Summary Judgment on November 20. 2017 and Defendant filed a
Motion for Summary Judgment on December 13. 2017. Plaintiff
responded to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on
January 17, 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. Chater, 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 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[.J"' 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 Barnhari 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. Id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(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[.]" Id. S§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 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. Id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii). 404.1520(c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii).
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.
Id. §§ 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. Id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii),
416.920(d): see Radford v. Calvin, 734 F.3d 288, 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 ALJ must
evaluate the extent to which the symptoms limit the
claimant's capacity to work. Id. §
404.1529(c)(1). At this second stage, the ALJ must consider
all of the available evidence, including medical history,
objective medical evidence, and statements by the claimant.
Id. § 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 ALJ 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 ALJ 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. Id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(e), 416.920(a)(4)(iv).
the claimant is unable to resume past relevant work, the ALJ
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. Id.
§§ 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 ...