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Johnson v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 16, 2018



          A. David Copperthite, United States Magistrate Judge

         On July 3, 2017. Rudolph Johnson ("Plaintiff') petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 ("the Complaint"). After consideration of the Complaint and the parties cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 15 & 18), 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. 15) is DENIF.D. Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 18) is GRANTED, and the decision of the SSA is AFFIRMED.

         Procedural History

         On February 4, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for DIB as well as a separate Title XVI application for SSI. which both alleged disability beginning on March 15, 2010. His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on July 25, 2013 and January 24, 2014, respectively.[2] Subsequently, on January 29, 2014, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and, on December 9, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALT) presided over a hearing held in Baltimore. Maryland. At the hearing. Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date to July 25, 2013. ECF No. 12 at 19. On February 2, 2016, the ALJ rendered a decision ruling that Plaintiff "ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act [("the Act")], from July 25, 2013, through the date of this decision” Id. at 31. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's disability determination and, on May 10, 2017. the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. Thus, the decision rendered by the ALJ became the final decision of the SSA. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481 (2017); see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On July 3. 2017. Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the SSA's denial of Plaintiffs disability applications. On November 22, 2017, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and on February 26, 2018, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment.[3] This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed both parties* motions for summary judgement.

         Standard of Review

         "This Court is authorized to review the [SSA|'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 [SSAJ 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 tie 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 the plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that the plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Brown v. Comm'r. Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017) ("[A] reviewing court must uphold the [disability] determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         "Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Pearson v. Colvin. 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "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." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citation and internal quotation marks 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 DIB and SSI. a claimant must establish that he 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). l382c(a)(3XA); 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[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), l382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Act. the ALJ. acting on behalf of the SSA, follows the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920: see Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The evaluation process is sequential, meaning that "[i]f at any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be made, the [SSA] will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); 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. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(i), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 4l6.92O(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[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(ii), 4l6.92O(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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(ii). 404.1520(c), 416.909, 4l6.92O(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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iii). 4l6.92O(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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iii). 404.1520(d), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d): see Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d288, 29l (4th Cir. 2013).

         Prior to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must assess the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("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 v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 594 (4th Cir. 1996); 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. 20 C.F.R. § 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). The ALJ must assess the credibility of the claimants statements, as symptoms can sometimes manifest at a greater level of severity of impairment than is shown by solely objective medical evidence. SSR 96-7p. 1996 WL 374186, at * 1-9 (July 2, 1996). To assess credibility, the ALJ should consider factors such as the claimant's daily activities, treatments he has received for his symptoms, medications, and any other factors contributing to functional limitations, hi. at *5.

         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. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iv), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(e), 4l6.92O(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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 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. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(v). 4l6.92O(a)(4)(v); see Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-73; Walls v. Barnhan. 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). If the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 4O4.l52O(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g)(1), 404.1560(c), 4l6.92O(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot perform other work, then the claimant is disabled. Id.

         ALJ Determination

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation and found at step one that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of July 25, 2013. ECF No. 12 at 22. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "major depressive disorder: status post right knee surgery; bilateral knee pain: right wrist pain; and back pain." Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. Id. at 23. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except he can perform no climbing of ladders and scaffolds, but can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and balance. He can also frequently handle and linger with the right, non-dominant hand; and can have frequent use of hand controls with the right hand. He is further limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks, but not those done at a production rate pace, as in an assembly line, where each task must be completed within a fixed time. In addition, time off-task during the workday can be accommodated by normal breaks.

Id. at 24-25. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. Id. at 30. Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that, "[considering [Plaintiff|'s age. Education. work experience, and [RFC), there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform." Id. Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff "ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in the [Act], from July 25, 2013, through the date of this decision." Id. at 31.


         Plaintiff raises five allegations of error on appeal: (1) that the ALJ's RFC determination inadequately accounted for Plaintiffs moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace: (2) that the ALJ improperly determined Plaintiffs credibility: (3) that substantial evidence did not support the AIJ's RFC determination for his physical impairments; (4) that the ALJ erred by relying on the vocational expert's ("VE'") testimony; and (5) that the ALJ failed to review Plaintiffs prior claim. ...

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