United States District Court, D. Maryland
April 24, 2017, Plaintiff Jennifer Renee D'Antoni
petitioned this Court to review the Social Security
Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision
to deny her claims for benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have
considered the parties' motions for summary judgment.
[ECF Nos. 17, 20]. 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); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Ms.
D'Antoni's motion, grant the SSA's motion, and
affirm the SSA's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.
D'Antoni filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on March 21, 2013, alleging a disability
onset date of September 30, 2012. (Tr. 208-19). Her claims
were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 127-83). A
hearing was held on March 3, 2016, before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 44-92). Following the
hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. D'Antoni was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 26-38). The Appeals Council
(“AC”) denied Ms. D'Antoni's request for
review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the
final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. D'Antoni suffered from the severe
impairments of “rheumatoid arthritis, degeneration and
osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine, peripheral neuropathy,
history of right knee arthroscopy, obesity, and
anxiety.” (Tr. 29). Despite these impairments, the ALJ
determined that Ms. D'Antoni retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except that she can stand and walk for two hours.
She can sit for six hours. She can occasionally climb ramps
and stairs, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can
occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch, but never
crawl. She can frequently use her hands to finger and handle.
She needs to avoid concentrated exposure [to] fumes, odors,
dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and other pulmonary
irritants, as well as weather extremes of heat and cold. She
needs to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. She is
limited to simple, routine, repetitive work, in an
environment with few, if any, workplace changes, and no high
production or pace.
(Tr. 32). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
D'Antoni could perform jobs existing in significant
numbers in the national economy and that, therefore, she was
not disabled. (Tr. 36-38).
D'Antoni raises two arguments in support of her appeal:
(1) that the ALJ erred in her evaluation of Listing 14.09A
(rheumatoid arthritis); and (2) that the ALJ assigned
inadequate weight to the medical opinions of her treating
physician, Dr. Nasser Nasseri. Pl. Mem. 12-17. Each argument
lacks merit and is addressed below.
Ms. D'Antoni contends that the ALJ should have determined
that she met or equaled Listing 14.09, which requires, in
relevant part, proof of persistent inflammation in each upper
extremity “resulting in the inability to perform fine
and gross movements effectively.” 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1 § 14.09. The ALJ determined that such a
finding was unwarranted, as Ms. D'Antoni:
testified that she lives alone, and is able to do her
laundry, cooking, and self-care independently, albeit slowly.
The claimant's treating records also indicate on more
than one occasion that with her medication she is able to
“do her daily activities without much
(Tr. 30-31). Arguing to the contrary, Ms. D'Antoni first
cites to laboratory reports and test scores showing that she
experienced inflammation, and to reports she made of
bilateral hand numbness, pain, achiness and stiffness. Pl.
Mem. 13. Ms. D'Antoni also cites to numerous statements
she made in the record, indicating that she had difficulty
completing some activities of daily living. (Tr. 13-14).
Ultimately, my review of the ALJ's decision is confined
to whether substantial evidence, in the record as it was
reviewed by the ALJ, supports the decision and whether the
correct legal standards were applied. Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 404 (1971). Even if there is
other evidence that may support Ms. D'Antoni'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). While
both Ms. D'Antoni and the ALJ focused more on evidence
relating to her ability to complete daily activities, as
opposed to fine and gross motor skills standing alone, fine
and gross motor skills are required to complete most daily
activities, such as laundry, cooking, and self-care. The
evidence accurately cited by the ALJ does indicate that Ms.
D'Antoni was able to perform relevant daily activities,
although at a slower pace. Accordingly, the ALJ cited to
substantial evidence to support her conclusion that Ms.
D'Antoni could perform fine and gross motor skills
effectively, and remand is unwarranted.
D'Antoni's remaining argument is that the ALJ
assigned inadequate weight to the opinion of her treating
rheumatologist, Dr. Nasseri. Pl. Mem. 14-16. The ALJ found
[T]he claimant's treating rheumatologist, Dr. Nasseri,
assessed the claimant's limitations in March 2016, but
this checkbox form provides little rationale, and the degree
of limitations is not supported by Dr. Nasseri's
treatment notes, which include few objective findings other
than synovitis and tenderness in the claimant's hands, as
well as lab results, and furthermore document the
claimant's report that she is generally able to perform
her daily activities (Ex. 15F). For these reasons, Dr.
Nasseri's opinion is given some weight as to the severity
of the claimant's impairments only (SSR 96-2p).
(Tr. 36). As with the discussion of the Listing analysis
above, there are some treatment notes from Dr. Nasseri that
could be marshaled in favor of an argument for disability, in
addition to the notes supporting the ALJ's view.
Compare (Tr. 407) (“She reports dramatic
improvement in her joint pain, swelling, and stiffness since
starting combination of Plaquenil and prednisone.); (Tr. 752)
(“She is still able to do most of her daily activities
without any significant difficulties.”); (Tr. 757)
(reporting “stiffness in her hands of less than 30
minutes” and ability “to do most of her daily
activities without difficulty”) with (Tr. 621)
(“She returns today and complains of continuing fatigue
and pain and stiffness and swelling in her hands which last
many hours . . . she is having increased difficulty doing
many of her daily household tasks.”). However,
given the fact that there is substantial evidence to support
the ALJ's analysis, in the form of favorable treatment
notes from Dr. Nasseri standing in contrast to the
significant daily limitations he describes in his opinion
form, remand is unwarranted.
addition, this case is distinguishable from Lewis v.
Berryhill,858 F.3d 858 (4th Cir. 2017), in which the
Fourth Circuit found that the ALJ had not provided a
sufficient rationale for the assignment of
less-than-controlling weight to a treating physician. The
Fourth Circuit determined in Lewis that the opinions
of the two treating physicians in question were consistent
with one another, and with opinions rendered by other
non-examining physicians. See Id. at 868. Here, Dr.
Nasseri's opinion stands alone. There are no other
treating physician opinions in the record, and the
non-examining State agency physicians believed Ms.
D'Antoni to be even less limited than the RFC assessment
determined by the ALJ. (Tr. 35, 131-33, 155-59). In fact,
while the ALJ assigned only “some weight” to Dr.
Nasseri's opinion, the ALJ credited Dr. Nasseri's
opinion over that of the State agency physicians ...