United States District Court, D. Maryland
Ms. Chavis and Counsel:
April 10, 2017, Plaintiff Pamela Chavis, who now appears
pro se following the withdrawal of her counsel,
petitioned this Court to review the Social Security
Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision
to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income. [ECF No.
1]. I have considered Ms. Chavis's one-page Motion for
Summary Judgment and the SSA's Motion for Summary
Judgment, in addition to arguments made by Ms. Chavis's
prior attorney during and following her administrative
hearing. [ECF Nos. 22, 23]. 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.
Chavis'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.
Chavis filed a claim for benefits on October 25, 2012,
alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2012. (Tr.
204-10). Her claim was denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 141-44, 150-51). A hearing, at which
Ms. Chavis was represented by counsel, was held on September
3, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 55-96). Following that hearing, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Chavis was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 23-54). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Chavis's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's
decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the
found that Ms. Chavis suffered from the severe impairments of
“affective disorder, anxiety, obesity, hypertension,
and polysubstance dependence.” (Tr. 28). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Chavis retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c) except
she can have only occasional contact with the public,
co-workers, and supervisors. Work would need to be routine,
rote, and unskilled. She would be able to be productive on a
sustained basis provided she is allowed the normal two
15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch break during her work
(Tr. 32). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Chavis
could perform her past relevant work as a dietary aide, and,
alternatively, could perform other jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 47-48).
Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Chavis was not
disabled. (Tr. 48).
carefully reviewed the ALJ's opinion and the entire
record. See Elam v. Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 746, 753
(E.D. Tex. 2005) (mapping an analytical framework for
judicial review of a pro se action challenging an
adverse administrative decision, including: (1) examining
whether the SSA's decision generally comports with
regulations, (2) reviewing the ALJ's critical findings
for compliance with the law, and (3) determining from the
evidentiary record whether substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's findings). For the reasons described below,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's decision.
proceeded in accordance with applicable law at all five steps
of the sequential evaluation. The ALJ ruled in Ms.
Chavis's favor at step one, and determined that she had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity between the
application date and the date of the opinion. (Tr. 28);
see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i),
416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ then considered the
severity of each of the impairments that Ms. Chavis claimed
prevented her from working. See Id. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The ALJ determined
that Ms. Chavis's complaints of lead poisoning, blurry
vision, and hair loss were not substantiated by medical
evidence or explained by any existing diagnosis, and that her
hepatomegaly, scoliosis, Hepatitis C, gastroesophageal reflux
disease, and impaired fasting glucose were medically
determinable, but non-severe. (Tr. 28-29). However, after
finding several of Ms. Chavis's other impairments to be
severe, id., the ALJ continued with the sequential
evaluation and considered, in assessing Ms. Chavis's RFC,
the extent to which her impairments limited her ability to
three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Chavis's impairments
did not meet or medically equal the criteria of any listings.
(Tr. 29-32). In particular, the ALJ identified and
considered Listings 4.04 (ischemic heart disease), 12.04
(depressive, bipolar, and related disorders), 12.06 (anxiety
and obsessive-compulsive disorders), and 12.09 (substance
addiction disorders). With respect to each of those listings,
the ALJ determined and explained that at least one criterion
for each listing was not met. Id. I have carefully
reviewed the record, and I agree that no listings are met in
considering Ms. Chavis's RFC, the ALJ summarized her
subjective complaints from her hearing testimony as part of
an extensive and detailed review of her medical records. (Tr.
35-41). The ALJ noted, among other findings, that Ms.
Chavis's activities of daily living are inconsistent with
a disabling level of impairments, (Tr. 35), that medical
professionals had opined that her symptoms would improve both
with abstention from substance abuse and with compliance with
medications, (Tr. 39-40), and that Ms. Chavis had not been
forthcoming about her work record and her incarceration
history, (Tr. 40-41). The ALJ then provided an extensive
analysis of the medical opinion evidence from treating,
examining, and non-examining medical sources, and assigned
“great weight” or “significant
weight” to some or all of ten different source
opinions. (Tr. 44).
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 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. Chavis'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). In considering the entire
record, and the evidence outlined above, I find that the ALJ
supported her conclusion with substantial evidence.
relying on the VE's testimony, the ALJ determined that a
person with Ms. Chavis's RFC would be capable of
performing her past relevant work as a dietary aide. (Tr. 47,
91). Alternatively, in accordance with the VE's
testimony, the ALJ determined that a person with Ms.
Chavis's RFC could perform other jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy, including
hospital cleaner, used car lot porter, or janitor/industrial
cleaner. (Tr. 48, 91). Because the VE testimony constitutes
substantial evidence to support the conclusion, the ALJ's
determination must be affirmed.
Ms. Chavis filed a document serving as a Motion for Summary
Judgment, it did not contain any substantive arguments in
support of her claim. [ECF No. 22]. The record contained a
letter Ms. Chavis's prior counsel sent to the Appeals
Council, asserting three challenges to the ALJ's opinion:
(1) that the ALJ's opinion runs afoul of Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015); (2) that the
ALJ's opinion used an outdated credibility standard; and
(3) that, because of the length of time between Ms.
Chavis's request for hearing and the disposition of her
claim by the ALJ, the ALJ should not have relied on the
opinions of the non-examining State agency physicians. (Tr.
354). I have considered the arguments set forth in that
letter, but find that each argument lacks merit. First, the
ALJ's opinion is distinguishable from Mascio,
because the ALJ addressed, both in the RFC assessment itself
and in the extensive analysis supporting the RFC assessment,
Ms. Chavis's ability to concentrate and to sustain work
throughout an eight-hour workday. See, e.g., (Tr.
32) (“She would be able to be productive on a sustained
basis provided she is allowed the normal two 15-minute breaks
and a 30-minute lunch break during her work shift.”);
(Tr. 38) (“The claimant testified that her
concentration had been about the same since childhood. . . .
The fact that her concentration problems did not prevent her
from working at the level of substantial gainful activity the
year before the application date strongly suggests that her
concentration problems would not have prevented her from
working after the application date.”). Second, while
the ALJ's opinion uses the term “credibility”
on several occasions, the use of that term does not
automatically invalidate the analysis provided by the ALJ.
SSR 16-3p provides that the Agency was “eliminating the
use of the term “credibility” from our
sub-regulatory policy, ” but it does not bar an ALJ
from using the word in an opinion. SSR 16-3P, 2017 WL
5180304, at *2 (S.S.A. Oct. 25, 2017). SSR 16-3
“instruct[s] our adjudicators to consider all of the
evidence in an individual's record when they evaluate the
intensity and persistence of symptoms.” Id.
The ALJ did exactly that here, and assessed in great detail
all of the evidence in Ms. Chavis's record to evaluate
the intensity and persistence of her symptoms. Accordingly,
the ALJ's use of the word “credibility” does
not indicate that the ALJ applied incorrect legal standards.
Finally, while Ms. Chavis is correct that the non-examining
State agency physicians issued their reports several years
before the ALJ's 2016 opinion, the ALJ did not rely on
those opinions alone to assess Ms. Chavis's RFC. Instead,
the ALJ also relied upon opinions by examining consultative
physicians and several of Ms. Chavis's treating
physicians in formulating the RFC assessment. Moreover, the
ALJ provided an extremely detailed discussion of her
evaluation of all of the opinion evidence in Ms. Chavis's
record. The arguments raised by Ms. Chavis's prior
counsel, then, do not provide grounds for remand.
reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment, [ECF No. 22] is DENIED and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment, [ECF No. 23], is GRANTED. The SSA's
judgment is AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence four ...