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Smith v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 9, 2018

Smith
v.
Social Security Administration[1]

          ORDER

          J. MARK COULSON UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Dear Counsel:

         On August 9, 2017, Ms. Shannon Michelle Smith petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claims for Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 12, 13). I find that no hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This Court must uphold the decision of the Agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and correct legal standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Ms. Smith's motion, grant the Government's motion, and affirm the Social Security Administration's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Ms. Smith filed a claim for benefits on May 1, 2013. (Tr. 27). Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration following appeal. (Tr. 86-95). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Tierney Carlos held a hearing on March 23, 2016. (Tr. 42-85). Following that hearing, on July 7, 2016, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith was not disabled during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 24-37). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Smith's request for review on June 19, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr. 1-3).

         In arriving at his decision to deny Ms. Smith's claim, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation of disability set forth in the Secretary's regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. “To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). If the first three steps do not yield a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), “which is ‘the most' the claimant ‘can still do despite' physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work, ” by considering all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments regardless of severity. Id. at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)). The claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four steps of the sequential evaluation. If she makes the requisite showing, the burden shifts to the Social Security Administration at step five to prove “that the claimant can perform other work that ‘exists in significant numbers in the national economy, ' considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 862 (4th Cir. 2017) (internal citations omitted).

         In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Smith had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since May 1, 2013, the date of Ms. Smith's application. (Tr. 29). At step two, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith's anxiety disorder and pervasive developmental disorder constitute severe impairments under the relevant regulations. (Tr. 29-30). At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Smith does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 30-32). Then, “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, ” the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith has the RFC to perform:

a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: she can have no exposure to weather and is limited to work environments with no more than moderate noise level, as defined in the selected characteristics of occupations. She can be expected to respond appropriately with supervisors unlimitedly, co-workers frequently and with the public occasionally.

(Tr. 32). At step four, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith has no past relevant work. (Tr. 36). Finally, after considering the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith can perform work existing in significant numbers in the national economy and that she was therefore not disabled during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 36-37).

         The Court reviews an ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of correct legal standards. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” which “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). In accordance with this standard, the Court does not “undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Instead, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id.

         On appeal, Ms. Smith argues that the ALJ failed to: (1) consider the impact of her severe mental impairment on her RFC; and (2) acknowledge Dr. Reichenbach's neuropsychological evaluation and testing. Ms. Smith's two arguments lack merit, and both will be addressed in turn.

         Ms. Smith's Severe Mental Impairment & RFC

         Ms. Smith first argues that the ALJ, after determining that she has a severe mental impairment, failed to properly consider the impact of this impairment on her RFC. Ms. Smith cites Social Security Rulings 96-8p and 85-15 in support of her assertion as to the ALJ's alleged failure to “make any findings regarding the claimant's ability to understand, carry out and remember simple instructions, to respond appropriately to usual work situations, and to deal with changes in a routine work setting.” (ECF No. 12-1 at 7-8). Ms. Smith admits that the vocational expert testified that the added limitations of “simple, routine, repetitive tasks” and “simple work-related decisions” would not affect her ability to perform the provided jobs, but also argues that the vocational expert was not asked about an individual with limitations as to “changes in a routine work setting” and “responding appropriately to usual work situations.” Id. at 8.

         Social Security regulations require an ALJ to “identify the [claimant's] functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis.” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015). To satisfy the function-by-function analysis requirement, the ALJ must include a “narrative discussion of the claimant's symptoms and medical source opinions” to support the RFC determination. White v. Commissioner, Civ. No. SAG-16-2428, 2017 WL 1373236, at *1 (D. Md. Apr. 13, 2017) (internal citation and quotations omitted); see also Taylor v. Astrue, Civ. No. BPG-11-0032, 2012 WL 294532, at *6 (D. Md. Jan. 31, 2012) (internal citation and quotations omitted) (finding that an ALJ's “RFC assessment is sufficient if it includes a narrative discussion of the claimant's symptoms and medical source opinions.”).

         Here, at step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Smith has mild restrictions in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning, mild difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, and no episodes of decompensation that have been of extended duration. (Tr. 31). Even so, “a finding of moderate impairment in a particular broad functioning area does not automatically indicate that a claimant's condition will significantly impact his or her ability to perform work-related functions.” Bell v. Astrue, Civ. No. JKS-07-00924, slip op. at *8 (D. Md. Mar. 12, 2008). As Ms. Smith has admitted, the ALJ's ultimate finding that she was not disabled during the relevant time period would not have been affected even if the ALJ had included limitations of “simple, routine, repetitive tasks” and “simple work-related decisions” within the RFC assessment, as these ...


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