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Nason v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 30, 2018

Lois Nason
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1]

         Dear Counsel:

         On June 13, 2017, Plaintiff Lois Nason (“Ms. Nason”) petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claims for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). (ECF No. 1.) The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 17 & 20.) These motions have been referred to the undersigned with the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Rule 301.[2] I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. This Court must uphold the decision of the agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the agency employed the proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). Following its review, this Court may affirm, modify, or reverse the Acting Commissioner, with or without a remand. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991). Under that standard, I will deny Ms. Nason's motion and grant the Acting Commissioner's motion. This letter explains my rationale.

         In her applications for DIB and SSI, Ms. Nason alleged a disability onset date of June 1, 2010. (Tr. 15.) Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on April 12, 2016, (Tr. 39-69), and the ALJ found that Ms. Nason was not disabled under the Social Security Act (Tr. 15-24). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Nason's request for review (Tr. 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

         The ALJ evaluated Ms. Nason's claim for benefits using the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Ms. Nason was not engaged in substantial gainful activity, and had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2015. (Tr. 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that Ms. Nason suffered from the following severe impairments: obesity and degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 17-18.) At step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Nason's impairments, separately and in combination, failed to meet or equal in severity any listed impairment as set forth in 20 C.F.R., Chapter III, Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (“Listings”). (Tr. 20.) The ALJ determined that Ms. Nason retained the RFC to perform the full range of medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c).[3] (Id.)

         At step four, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Ms. Nason was able to perform past relevant work as a graphic designer.[4] (Tr. 23.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Ms. Nason was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 23-24.)

         Ms. Nason raises four arguments in this appeal. First, she argues that the ALJ did not provide a sufficient narrative discussion in connection with the RFC assessment. (ECF No. 17-1 at 5.) Second, she argues that the ALJ did not evaluate pertinent evidence about her chronic pain and the functional limitations caused by that pain. (Id. at 6.) Third, she argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her obesity. (Id. at 8.) Fourth, she argues that the ALJ did not properly evaluate her credibility. (Id. at 12.) I will address these arguments in turn.

         Ms. Nason first argues that the ALJ “failed to set forth a narrative discussion setting forth how the evidence supported each conclusion [of the RFC], citing specific medical facts and nonmedical evidence.” (ECF No. 17-1 at 5-6.) Ms. Nason argues that the ALJ did not explain how she determined that Ms. Nason was capable of performing a full range of medium work. Ms. Nason also argues that the ALJ failed to identify her functional limitations and assess her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis. (Id.) In addition, Ms. Nason specifically notes that the ALJ did not make findings about her ability to perform work-related activities for a full workday, and that she failed to recognize that the opinions of two State agency physicians conflicted with each other. (Id. at 6.)

         Social Security Ruling 96-8p instructs that an “RFC assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions” listed in the regulations. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). Further, the “RFC assessment must include 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).” Id. at *7. An ALJ must “both identify evidence that supports his conclusion and build an accurate and logical bridge from [that] evidence to his conclusion.” Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 694 (4th Cir. 2018) (emphasis omitted).

         The ALJ adequately assessed Ms. Nason's RFC based on the medical evidence. The ALJ summarized the medical records related to Ms. Nason's degenerative disc disease and found that, overall, the records contain few clinical findings, and recommend “mostly routine care with medication and conservative therapy.” (Tr. 21.) In addition, the ALJ noted that Ms. Nason reported only moderate pain on several occasions, and that objective imaging revealed “minimal to mild disc degeneration without significant herniation or impingement.” (Id.) The ALJ also observed that her treating physicians advised her to exercise, get a job, and begin tapering off narcotic medication. (Id. at 21-22.) The ALJ stated that on several occasions, Ms. Nason appeared at primary care appointments and “exhibited normal gait, despite complaints of diffuse pain.” (Id. at 22.)

         Ms. Nason is correct that the ALJ did not state that the opinions of the State agency medical consultants were inconsistent with one another. However, the ALJ also gave the opinions little weight because they contained restrictions that were more severe than was warranted. (Id. at 22-23.) In making this finding, the ALJ explained that the opinions were inconsistent with the medical records that showed Ms. Nason presenting with normal gait and few clinical findings. (Id.) The opinions were also inconsistent with Ms. Nason's subjective reports of only moderate pain on several occasions, the results of objective imaging, and Ms. Nason's self-report of being able to work in a customer service capacity on a part-time basis.[5](Id.) The evidence summarized by the ALJ supports the finding that Ms. Nason can perform medium work. Because the ALJ's narrative RFC discussion and relevant citations to the record enable meaningful review of the ALJ's RFC analysis, Ms. Nason's first argument is without merit.

         Ms. Nason's second argument is that the ALJ did not evaluate pertinent evidence about her chronic pain and the functional limitations caused by that pain. (ECF No. 17-1 at 6.) She points to evidence of her chronic pain and limitations caused by that pain contained in medical records from March 2005, May 2010, September 2012, December 2013, and July 2015. She argues that because these records were not discussed by the ALJ, and because they are inconsistent with the RFC determination, “it is impossible to determine whether these opinions were properly rejected, or simply ignored.” (Id. at 8.)

         Ms. Nason points to a March 22, 2005, treatment note from Dr. Cindy Zhang. (Tr. 376.) Although the note recites Ms. Nason's self-reported “intractable chronic thoracic back pain” that had a “tremendous negative impact on the quality of life, physical activities and function status, ” the note predates the alleged disability onset date by approximately five years. As the ALJ noted in the decision, Ms. Nason has reported only mild and moderate pain levels on several occasions since the alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 21, 815-16, 872, 1260, 1528-29, 1557-58, 1579.) The ALJ properly considered Ms. Nason's more recent reports of mild to moderate pain levels.

         Ms. Nason also cites a May 14, 2010, spine evaluation that indicates that she has a decreased ranged of motion and mobility. (Tr. 677-79.) However, other medical records since that time indicate that that she has no manipulative difficulty and has a normal range of motion in her shoulders. (Tr. 852-53, 891-92, 1601.) The ALJ's RFC determination, which does not restrict Ms. Nason's range of motion, is supported by substantial evidence.

         Ms. Nason points to a September 14, 2012, physical therapy consultation that indicated that she had low endurance and was deconditioned. (Tr. 821.) But this treatment note does not indicate how Ms. Nason's low endurance and deconditioned state result in any functional limitations. Furthermore, as the ALJ noted, these conditions were recognized by Ms. Nason's physicians, and they recommended that she begin exercising and becoming more physically active, as well as getting out of the house and working. (Tr. 21, 824, 838, 846, 856.) The ALJ properly ...


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