United States District Court, D. Maryland
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
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
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
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),
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. (Tr. 23.) Therefore, the ALJ
found that Ms. Nason was not disabled under the Social
Security Act. (Tr. 23-24.)
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.
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.)
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).
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.)
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.(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.
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.)
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.
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.
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