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Harich v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 9, 2018

HEATHER HARICH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Charles B. Day, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Heather Harich (“Plaintiff”) brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Plaintiff's Motion”) (ECF No. 10) and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Commissioner's Motion”) (ECF No. 11). The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and the applicable law. No hearing is deemed necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby REVERSES and REMANDS the matter for further clarification.

         I. Procedural Background

         On September 5, 2013, Plaintiff filed for DIB under Title II, alleging disability beginning December 29, 2009. R. 13. Plaintiff alleged disability due to multiple sclerosis (“MS”), gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), depressive dis, anxiety disorder, and migraines. R. 15. An administrative hearing was held on June 30, 2016, and on July 15, 2016, the claim was denied. R. 13, 25. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which concluded on June 12, 2017, that there was no basis for overturning the decision of the ALJ. R. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         On appeal, the Court has the power to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the ALJ “with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2015). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. Id. (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”); see also Russell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 440 Fed.Appx. 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). “In other words, if the ALJ has done his or her job correctly and supported the decision reached with substantial evidence, this Court cannot overturn the decision, even if it would have reached a contrary result on the same evidence.” Schoofield v. Barnhart, 220 F.Supp.2d 512, 515 (D. Md. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla.” Russell, 440 F. App'x, at 164. “It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see also Hays, 907 F.2d, at 1456 (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted) (“It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.”).

         The Court does not review the evidence presented below de novo, nor does the Court “determine the weight of the evidence” or “substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citations omitted); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972) (“[T]he language of § 205(g) precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court uphold the Secretary's decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by ‘substantial evidence.'”). The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d, at 1456 (citations omitted). If the ALJ's factual finding, however, “was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law, ” then that finding is not binding on the Court. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).

         The Court shall find a person legally disabled under Title II if she is unable “to do 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.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a) (2012). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a claimant meets this definition:

1) Determine whether the plaintiff is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) (2012). If she is doing such activity, she is not disabled. If she is not doing such activity, proceed to step two.
2) Determine whether the plaintiff has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § [404.1509], or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) (2012). If she does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, she is not disabled. If she does meet these requirements, proceed to step three.
3) Determine whether the plaintiff has an impairment that “meets or equals one of [the C.F.R.'s] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) (2012). If she does have such impairment, she is disabled. If she does not, proceed to step four.
4) Determine whether the plaintiff retains the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) (2012). If she can perform such work, she is not disabled. If she cannot, proceed to step five.
5) Determine whether the plaintiff can perform other work, considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v) (2012). If she can perform other work, she is not disabled. If she cannot, she is disabled.

         Plaintiff has the burden to prove that she is disabled at steps one through four, and Commissioner has the burden to prove that Plaintiff is not disabled at step five. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992).

         The RFC is an assessment that represents the most a claimant can do despite any physical and mental limitations on a “regular and continuing basis.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(b)-(c) (2012). In making this assessment, the ALJ must consider all relevant evidence of the claimant's impairments and any related symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) (2012). The ALJ must present a “narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g. laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g. daily activities, observations), ” and must then “explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were considered and resolved.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 at *7 (S.S.A.). “Ultimately, it is the duty of the [ALJ] reviewing the case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts of evidence.” Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979)).

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claim using the five-step sequential evaluation process. R. 15-24. At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 29, 2009. R. 15. At step two, under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c), the ALJ found Plaintiff to have the following severe impairments: MS; GERD; depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. Id. The ALJ stated that these medical conditions “were severe because they more than minimally affected the claimant's ability to perform work activities.” Id.[1] At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically ...


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