United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-referenced case has been
referred to me for review of the Social Security
Administration's (“SSA's”) dispositive
motion, (ECF No. 39), and to make recommendations pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix).
Plaintiff Sarah Stevens, who appears pro se, did not
file a motion for summary judgment but filed a response to
the SSA's Motion for Summary Judgment. [ECF No. 41]. I
have considered the SSA's Motion and Ms. Stevens's
response. [ECF Nos. 39, 41]. I find that no hearing is
necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This
Court must uphold the decision of the SSA if it is supported
by substantial evidence and if the SSA 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 recommend that the Court
grant the SSA's motion and affirm the SSA's judgment
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
case has a lengthy procedural history. Ms. Stevens filed
claims for benefits on October 24, 2006, alleging disability
beginning March 2, 2005. (Tr. 109-21). Her claims were denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 81-88, 90-93). A
hearing, at which Ms. Stevens was represented by counsel, was
held on March 6, 2009, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). (Tr. 36-76). Following the hearing, on
August 5, 2009, the ALJ determined that Ms. Stevens was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 24-35). The Appeals Council
denied Ms. Stevens's request for review. (Tr. 17-20).
6, 2011, Ms. Stevens filed new applications for benefits, and
was found disabled as of June 30, 2010. (Tr. 786). However,
Ms. Stevens also appealed the 2009 denial of benefits to this
Court. (Tr. 475-84). On July 1, 2014, this Court remanded the
case pursuant to sentence six of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for
consideration of “new and material evidence”
regarding Ms. Stevens's medical condition prior to August
10, 2009. Id. On remand, an ALJ held another hearing
and determined that Ms. Stevens was disabled beginning June
9, 2006, but not prior. (Tr. 415-38, 392-409). The SSA
reopened the case in this Court and agreed that the case
should be remanded again to consider additional evidence.
(Tr. 825-32). Following another remand, an ALJ held a third
hearing on January 18, 2017. (Tr. 804-20). After that
hearing, at which Ms. Stevens appeared without counsel, the
ALJ again found that Ms. Stevens was not disabled during the
period before June 9, 2006. (Tr. 783-803). That ALJ opinion,
dated February 14, 2017, is the subject of this appeal.
found that, before June 9, 2006, Ms. Stevens suffered from
the severe impairments of “obesity; degenerative joint
disease; fibroid tumors; anemia, and foot disorders.”
(Tr. 789). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined
that, before June 9, 2006, Ms. Stevens had retained the
residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and
416.967(a) with the following limitations: She had to avoid
crawling, kneeling, and climbing ladders, ropes, and
scaffolds, but she could perform other postural movements on
an occasional basis. Due to pain, she was limited to simple,
routine unskilled tasks that were not fast-paced.
(Tr. 790-91). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that, prior to
June 9, 2006, Ms. Stevens could perform jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy and that,
therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 795-96).
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.
Stevens's favor at step one and determined that she did
not engage in substantial gainful activity before June 9,
2006. (Tr. 789); see 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ then considered the
severity of each of the impairments that Ms. Stevens claimed
prevented her from working. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(ii). Notably, the ALJ found Ms. Stevens's
“status post a remote acute deep vein thrombosis,
” high blood pressure, ankle sprain, and injury to her
left hip to be non-severe. (Tr. 789-90). In assessing
severity, the ALJ noted that there was no evidence of deep
vein thrombosis during the period at issue, no evidence of
cardiac or blood pressure-related complications before June
9, 2006, and no evidence of congestive heart failure prior to
that date. (Tr. 789). The ALJ also found that Ms.
Stevens's ankle sprain and related hip injury were acute
injuries that did not last a continuous period of 12 months.
(Tr. 789-90). However, after finding at least one of Ms.
Stevens's impairments severe, id., the ALJ
continued with the sequential evaluation and considered, in
assessing Ms. Stevens's RFC, the extent to which her
impairments limited her ability to work.
three, the ALJ determined that Ms. Stevens's severe
impairments did not meet, or medically equal, the criteria of
any listings. (Tr. 790). In particular, the ALJ considered
the specific requirements of Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction
of a joint); 1.04 (spinal disorders); 7.05, 7.08, 7.10, 7.17,
and 7.18 (hematologic listings); and 13.23 (cancers of the
female genital tract). See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt.
P, App'x 1 §§ 1.02, 1.04, 7.05, 7.08, 7.10,
7.17, 7.18, 13.23. The ALJ cited to specific criteria and
medical evidence to explain why each of the listings had not
been met. (Tr. 790).
considering Ms. Stevens's RFC, the ALJ summarized her
subjective complaints from her applications, disability
reports, and testimony at her various hearings. (Tr. 791-92).
The ALJ then engaged in a detailed review of Ms.
Stevens's medical records and objective testing. (Tr.
792-95). The ALJ specifically noted that the record
“contains little medical evidence for the period before
June 9, 2006.” (Tr. 793). The ALJ further explained
that “[e]xaminations in 2006 generally showed no signs
of significant arthritis, ” and that “there is no
evidence that the claimant had significant treatment for or
complications related to anemia or fibroids between March
2005 and June 2006.” Id. The ALJ summarized,
in significant detail, the physical examination records from
Ms. Stevens's visit to the emergency room in September,
2005. (Tr. 794). Other than the acute injuries to Ms.
Stevens's ankle and hip, the remainder of the examination
demonstrated normal or unremarkable findings. Id.
The ALJ noted that the emergency room visit was “[t]he
most extensive physical exam between March 2005 and June
2006, ” which is the only period relevant to this case.
Id. Finally, the ALJ reviewed the opinion evidence,
but noted that all of the opinion evidence pertained to times
after June, 2006. (Tr. 794-95).
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. Stevens's position, I am not
permitted to reweigh the evidence or to substitute my own
judgment for that of the ALJ. See Hays v. Sullivan,
907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In considering the
entire record, and given the sparse medical evidence outlined
above regarding Ms. Stevens's physical condition during
the relevant time frame, I find the ALJ's RFC
determination was supported by substantial evidence.
the ALJ determined that Ms. Stevens had past relevant work as
a telemarketer, but that she would be unable to perform that
job based on her RFC. (Tr. 795). Accordingly, the ALJ
proceeded to step five, where he considered the impact of Ms.
Stevens's age and level of education on her ability to
adjust to new work. (Tr. 795-96). In doing so, the ALJ cited
the VE's testimony that a person with Ms. Stevens's
RFC would be capable of performing the jobs of “charge
account clerk, ” “food and beverage clerk,
” and “surveillance system monitor.” (Tr.
796). Based on the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded that
Ms. Stevens was capable ...