United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher, United States Magistrate Judge.
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-captioned case has been
referred to me to review the parties' dispositive motions
and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). [ECF No. 2]. I have
considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. [ECF Nos. 10, 11]. 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);
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
Under that standard, I recommend that Plaintiff's motion
be denied, the Commissioner's motion be granted, and the
Commissioner's judgment be affirmed pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
5, 2013 and August 10, 2013, respectively, Ms. Phillips filed
her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”), alleging a disability onset date of
August 1, 2010. (Tr. 233-34, 235-40). Her claims were denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 133-40, 144-47). On
December 2, 2015, a hearing was held before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 36-84). Following the
hearing, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision on February
26, 2016. (Tr. 13-35). The Appeals Council denied Ms.
Phillips's request for further review, (Tr. 1-6), so the
ALJ's 2016 decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that, during the relevant time frame, Ms. Phillips
suffered from the severe impairments of “lumbar
degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy, carpal tunnel
syndrome, obesity, affective disorder (bipolar), and anxiety
disorder.” (Tr. 18). Despite these impairments, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Phillips retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except she can only occasionally stoop, kneel,
crouch, crawl, climb ramps or stairs, or balance on narrow,
slippery, or erratically moving surfaces. The claimant must
never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can be
occasionally exposed to unprotected heights and moving
mechanical parts. The claimant is limited to simple, routine,
repetitive tasks (but not at a production rate pace) with
occasional contact with coworkers, supervisors, and the
general public. Any time off-task she would require during
the day would be accommodated by normal work breaks.
(Tr. 21). After considering testimony from a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Phillips was capable of performing her past relevant work as
a warehouse worker, and, therefore, she was not disabled.
appeal, Ms. Phillips raises two primary arguments: (1) that
the ALJ failed to adequately explain why he accorded
“little weight” to the medical opinion of her
treating psychiatrist, Dr. Jemima Kankam, Pl.'s Mem.,
[ECF No. 10-1 at 9-16]; and (2) that the ALJ failed to
properly evaluate Ms. Phillips's credibility,
id. at 16-18. Each argument lacks merit and is
Ms. Phillips contends that the ALJ failed to properly weigh
the medical opinion evidence. Specifically, Ms. Phillips
argues that the ALJ erred by assigning “little”
weight to Dr. Kankam's medical opinion and by instead
assigning “great weight” to the opinion of a
consultative psychiatrist, Dr. Varsha Vaidya. Id. at
9-10. As background, a treating physician's opinion is
given controlling weight, unless it is not supported by
clinical evidence or is inconsistent with other substantial
evidence. See Craig, 76 F.3d at 590. If the ALJ does
not give a treating source's opinion controlling weight,
the ALJ will assign weight after applying several factors,
including the length and nature of the treatment
relationship, the degree to which the opinion is supported by
the record as a whole, and any other factors that support or
contradict the opinion. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1527(c)(1)-(6). The Commissioner must also consider, and
is entitled to rely on, opinions from non-treating doctors.
See SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *3 (S.S.A. July 2,
1996) (“In appropriate circumstances, opinions from
State agency medical and psychological consultants and other
program physicians and psychologists may be entitled to
greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining
the ALJ provided substantial evidence to support his
assignment of “little weight” to Dr. Kankam's
opinion. First, the ALJ summarized Dr. Kankam's May 2014
opinion that Ms. Phillips:
had an untreated illness that was severe, had limited control
and was verbally and physically aggressive on impulse . . .,
was agoraphobic, had a poor attention span . . ., and that
[her] mental abilities and aptitude needed to do any job were
poor or fair in most work-related categories, such as
following instructions, socializing, responding to changes,
making decisions, and performing at a production pace.
(Tr. 25-26, 477). The ALJ, however, found that Dr.
Kankam's opinion was “not consistent with the
medical record as a whole as well as [Ms. Phillips's]
self-reported activities of going out of the home, caring for
her children, and maintaining a household.” (Tr. 26).
The ALJ expressly cited Ms. Phillips' daily activities
of: cooking meals, performing household chores, shopping, and
socializing with her family. (Tr. 22, 270-75). Further, the
ALJ explained that, despite Dr. Kankam's opinion,
“the record reflects significant gaps in [Ms.
Phillips's] history of treatment.” (Tr. 25).
Additionally, evidencing the inconsistency of Dr.
Kankam's opinion, Ms. Phillips reported to Dr. Atluri
(her primary care physician): (1) in March 2014 that her
anxiety was under control; and (2) in July 2014 that felt she
was doing okay overall. (Tr. 24, 442, 480, 487). Importantly,
Dr. Kankam treated Ms. Phillips only from August 4, 2011
through October 6, 2011 and then once more on March 24,
2014. (Tr. 332-47, 576-81). The fact that Dr.
Kankam's May 2014 opinion is sandwiched between Dr.
Atluri's two contrary reports further evinces the
to further demonstrate that Dr. Kankam's opinion was
inconsistent with the other record evidence, the ALJ
thoroughly considered Dr. Vaidya's opinion, according it
“great weight” because the findings “were
based on a thorough mental examination of [Ms. Phillips] and
are consistent with the other evidence in the record.”
(Tr. 25). Dr. Vaidya opined that Ms. Phillips: (1) was alert
and cooperative with normal psychomotor activity and no
agitation; (2) demonstrated normal, coherent, and relevant
speech with no signs of formal thought disorder; (3) was well
oriented with intact intellectual resources; and (4)
exhibited good recent and remote memory and performed well on
the abstract thinking test. (Tr. 24, 406). Ms. Phillips told
Dr. Vaidya that she was unable to work not because of mental
health issues but because of “back problems, cant [sic]
walk or stand long.” (Tr. 406). Accordingly, Dr. Vaidya
encouraged Ms. Phillips to return to work. (Tr. 25, 406).
Finally, the ALJ considered the opinion of Dr. S. Rudin who,
on reconsideration, opined that Ms. Phillips could perform
light work subject to certain postural and environmental
limitations. (Tr. 25, 113-17, 126-30). Accordingly, by
comparing Dr. Kankam's opinion to Ms. Phillips's
reported daily activities and remaining record evidence,
substantial evidence supports the ALJ's assignment of
“little weight” to Dr. Kankam's opinion.
Ms. Phillips contends that the ALJ failed to properly
evaluate her credibility. Pl.'s Mem., [ECF No. 10-1 at
16-18]. To determine the credibility of the claimant's
statements, the ALJ “must consider the entire case
record, including the objective medical evidence, the
individual's own statements about symptoms, statements
and other information provided by treating or examining
physicians . . . and any other relevant evidence in the case
record.” SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *1 (S.S.A. July
2, 1996). Importantly, an ALJ must “articulate which of
a claimant's individual statements are credible, rather
than whether the claimant is credible as a general
matter.” Bostrom v. Colvin, 134 F.Supp.3d 952,
960 (D. Md. 2015) (quoting Armani v. Comm'r, Soc.
Sec. Admin., No. JMC-14-CV-976, 2015 WL 2062183, at *1
(D. Md. May 1, 2015)); see also Mascio v. Colvin,
780 F.3d 632, 640 (4th Cir. 2015) (“Nowhere, however,
does the ALJ explain how he decided which of [the
claimant's] statements to believe and which to discredit,
other than the vague (and circular) boilerplate statement
that he did not believe any claims of limitations beyond what
he found when considering [the claimant's] residual
to Ms. Phillips's contention, the ALJ properly evaluated
her credibility. First, the ALJ observed that Ms.
Phillips's admitted daily activities undermined her
subjective allegations of pain. (Tr. 25). Most notably, Ms.
Phillips admitted that she was capable of caring for her
children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and socializing with
family. (Tr. 25, 270-75). Second, as discussed above, though
alleging a disability since 2010, Ms. Phillips has
“significant gaps” in her treatment history, with
most records not beginning until 2012. (Tr. 25).
Furthermore, the ALJ explained that the treatment records
vary significantly throughout the relevant period and with
respect to her subjective allegations of symptoms and pain.
(Tr. 25). For example, though Ms. Phillips alleged a history
of low back pain and limitations in standing, sitting, and
walking, on physical examination she demonstrated normal gait
and stance, and, upon undergoing physical therapy, she
reported feeling a lot better, with symptoms in her right leg
resolving completely. (Tr. 23, 25, 350, 354, 534, 602, 608,
673). Additionally, in terms of mental limitations, the ALJ
cited Ms. Phillips's own statements to Dr. Atluri in: (1)
March 2014, ...