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Price v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

June 26, 2018

LAUREN PRICE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Social Security Administration, Defendant.[1]

          MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S ALTERNATIVE MOTION FOR REMAND

          Thomas M. DiGirolamo United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Lauren Price seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying her applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 20) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21).[2] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that she is not disabled. No. hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 20) is GRANTED.

         I

         Background

         Born in 1961, Plaintiff has an associate's degree and previously worked as a paralegal and FOIA specialist. R. at 32-33, 43. Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and for SSI on August 8, 2013, alleging disability beginning on October 1, 2012 (later amended to May 22, 2014), due to a mental disorder and diabetes. R. at 22, 43-44, 182-94, 284. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 76-121, 124-42. On January 13, 2016, ALJ F.H. Ayer held a hearing in Washington, D.C., at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 40-75. On February 23, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the amended alleged onset date of disability of May 22, 2014, through the date of the decision. R. at 19-39. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 5, 2017. R. at 1-7, 15-18. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On June 7, 2017, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Upon the parties' consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case subsequently was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.

         II

         Summary of Evidence

         A. State Agency Consultants

         On November 14, 2013, a state agency consultant, Nicole Sampson, Ph.D., using the psychiatric review technique (“PRT”) under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a and 416.920a, evaluated Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listing 12.04 relating to affective disorders (R. at 80-81, 90-91). See 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 § 12.04. Dr. Sampson opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listing, Plaintiff's mental impairments caused her to experience (1) moderate restriction in activities of daily living; (2) moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) no repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 80, 90. Dr. Sampson did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 80, 90. Dr. Sampson thus assessed Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) carry out detailed instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (3) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; (4) interact appropriately with the general public; (5) accept instructions and to respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and to (6) get along with co-workers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. She otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 81-83, 91-93. Dr. Sampson opined that Plaintiff “can execute 1-2 step instructions. She can focus and concentrate for 2 hour periods to complete a normal 8 hour work day. She can complete a normal work week despite her depressive symptoms.” R. at 82, 92.

         On January 30, 2014, another state agency consultant, Nancy Heiser, Ph.D., again used the PRT to evaluate Plaintiff's mental impairments under Listing 12.04. R. at 103, 114. Dr. Heiser opined that, under paragraph B of the applicable listing, Plaintiff's mental impairments caused her to experience (1) moderate restriction in activities of daily living; (2) moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning; (3) moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; and (4) no repeated episodes of decompensation of extended duration. R. at 103, 114. Dr. Heiser did not find evidence to establish the presence of the criteria under paragraph C of the applicable listing. R. at 103, 114. Dr. Heiser thus assessed Plaintiff's mental RFC and opined that she was moderately limited in her ability to (1) carry out detailed instructions; (2) maintain attention and concentration for extended periods; (3) complete a normal workday and workweek without interruptions from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; (4) interact appropriately with the general public; (5) accept instructions and to respond appropriately to criticism from supervisors; and to (6) get along with co-workers or peers without distracting them or exhibiting behavioral extremes. Plaintiff otherwise was not significantly limited. R. at 104-06, 115-17. Like Dr. Sampson, Dr. Heiser opined that Plaintiff “can execute 1-2 step instructions. She can focus and concentrate for 2 hour periods to complete a normal 8 hour work day. She can complete a normal work week despite her depressive symptoms.” R. at 105, 116.

         B. Plaintiff's Testimony

         The ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's testimony in the ALJ's decision:

Upon filing for benefits, [Plaintiff] alleged she was unable to work due to a mental disorder and diabetes [R. at 283-91]. At the hearing, her representative alleged [Plaintiff] could not do her past work due to difficulties ambulating, social isolation, and only bathing twice a month. He further stated she had daytime sleepiness from either her depression or her sleep apnea. The representative also clarified that [Plaintiff] injured her leg in a cave in 2010 and broke her left ankle in 2015.

R. at 28; see R. at 43-52, 57-74.

         C. VE Testimony

         The VE testified that a hypothetical individual with Plaintiff's same age, education, and work experience and with the RFC outlined below in Part III could not perform Plaintiff's past relevant work but could perform the light, unskilled jobs of router, non-postal mail clerk, or office helper.[3] R. at 52-54. An additional limitation of a sit-stand option would eliminate the non-postal mail clerk position, but such a hypothetical individual could work instead as a sorter. R. at 55-56. No. work would be available to such a hypothetical individual if he or she could not perform simple, one- to four-step, routine, and repetitive tasks. R. at 56-57. Further, a person with a 15% to 18% loss of productivity from being off task would not be able to maintain work. R. at 56. A person missing two days per month at work would not be able to remain employable. R. at 56. With the exception of her testimony regarding a sit-stand option, absenteeism, and productivity levels, the VE's testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles[4] (the “DOT”). R. at 54-57.

         III

         Summary of ALJ's Decision

         On February 23, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of disability of May 22, 2014; and (2) had an impairment or a combination of impairments considered to be “severe” on the basis of the requirements in the Code of Federal Regulations; but (3) did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments meeting or equaling one of the impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; and (4) was unable to perform her past relevant work; but (5) could perform other work in the national economy, such as a router, non-postal mail clerk, or office helper. R. at 24-34. The ALJ thus found that she was not disabled from May 22, 2014, through the date of the decision. R. at 34.

         In so finding, the ALJ found that, with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, Plaintiff had moderate difficulties. R. at 26.

[Plaintiff] reported to the State agency that she lived with family, lay in bed, and watched television. Her son completed most of the household chores and cared for the dog. She used alarms on her iphone to remind her to perform personal care and take her medication. [Plaintiff] prepared simple meals, and she had no energy to get dressed or clean her home. She paid bills, counted change and managed her bank account. [Plaintiff] indicated she could pay attention for 15 minutes, and did poorly with spoken and written ones [R. at 223-33, 257-67]. A review of her psychological treatment records indicated only moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence and pace. [Plaintiff] reported fatigue, a depressed and anxious mood and some hallucinations and paranoia. However, clinical signs on mental ...

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