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Warren v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 13, 2018

LONNIE C. WARREN, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          AMENDED MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge

         On 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.

         Procedural History

         On 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."[1] 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).

         On March 6, 2017, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of Plaintiffs disability application.[2] 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.

         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. 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)).

         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 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).

         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 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).

         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. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(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[.]" 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). 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. 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).

         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 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.

         At step 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). 416.920(e).

         Where 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 ...


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