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Carbaugh v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 31, 2018

BRIAN LEROY CARBAUGH, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. David Copperthite, United States Magistrate Judge

         On August 2, 2017. Brian Leroy Carbaugh ("Plaintiff') petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 ("the Complaint"). After consideration of the Complaint, the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 20 & 23) and Plaintiffs reply (ECF No. 26), the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). In addition, for the reasons that follow. Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 20) is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 23) is GRANTED, and the decision of the SSA is AFFIRMED.

         Procedural History

         On April 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for DIB and on May 30, 2012, Plaintiff filed a separate Title XVI application for SSI, which both alleged disability beginning on October 1, 2010. His claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Subsequently, on November 14. 2013. Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and, on May 1. 2014, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") presided over a hearing. On May 30. 2014, the ALJ rendered a decision ruling that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act (the "Act"). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, which granted the request on October 23, 2015 and remanded Plaintiffs claim for a new hearing. In its remand order, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to consider the opinion of Plaintiffs treating source psychiatrist. Dr. Larry Edelstein, obtain further vocational expert testimony, and give further consideration to Plaintiffs maximum residual functional capacity ("RFC"). especially considering Dr. Edelstein's opinions. ECF No. 15 at 14.

         On April 8, 2016, Plaintiff appeared and testified at the second hearing before a different ALJ. ECF No. 15 at 14. On July 13, 2016. the ALJ issued a decision ruling that Plaintiff "ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in the [Act], from October 1, 2010. through the date of this decision." ECF No. 15 at 26. Thereafter. Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's disability determination and. on June 14, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. Thus. the decision rendered by the ALJ became the final decision of the SSA. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481 (2018): see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).

         On August 2. 2017. Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the SSA's denial of his disability applications. On January 30. 2018, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and on May 2, 2018. after receiving an extension of time for filing. Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff filed a response on May 29. 2018.[2] This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed both parties' motions.

         Standard of Review

         "This Court is authorized to review the [SSA]'s denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g)." Johnson v. Barnhurt, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citation omitted). The Court, however, does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence. Instead, the Court's review of an SSA decision is deferential, as "[t]he findings of the [SSA] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g): see Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996) ("The duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court”); Smith v. Schweiker. 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986) ("We do not conduct a de novo review of the evidence, and the [SSA]'s finding of non-disability is to be upheld, even if the court disagrees, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence." (citations omitted)). Therefore, the issue before the reviewing court is not whether the plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJs finding that the plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Brown v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017) ("[A] reviewing court must uphold the [disability] determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         "Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "In reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Therefore, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court shall determine whether the ALJ has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to that evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         In order to be eligible for DIB and SSI. a claimant must establish that he is under disability within the meaning of the Act. The term "disability," for purposes of the Act, is defined as the "inability to engage in 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." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505. 416.905. A claimant shall be determined to be under disability where "[her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A). 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ, acting on behalf of the SSA, follows the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The evaluation process is sequential, meaning that "[i]f at any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further." Barnhan v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one. the ALJ considers the claimant's work activity to determine if the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i). 416.920(b).

         At step two, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment [or combination of impairments] that meets the duration requirement[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(h). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments meeting the durational requirement of twelve months, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(h), 404.1520(c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(H), 416.920(c).

         At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Prior to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must assess the claimant's RFC. which is then used at the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). RFC is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis. SSR 96-8p. 1996 WL 374184. at *1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ must consider even those impairments that are not "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).

         In determining RFC, the ALJ evaluates the claimant's subjective symptoms (e.g., allegations of pain) using a two-part test. Craig v. Chaler, 76 F.3d 585, 594 (4th Cir. 1996); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. First, the ALJ must determine whether objective evidence shows the existence of a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the actual alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Once the claimant makes that threshold showing, the ALJ must evaluate the extent to which the symptoms limit the claimant's capacity to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1). At this second stage, the ALJ must consider all of the available evidence, including medical history, objective medical evidence, and statements by the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). The ALJ must assess the credibility of the claimant's statements, as symptoms can sometimes manifest at a greater level of severity of impairment than is shown by solely objective medical evidence. SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *1-9 (July 2. 1996). To assess credibility, the ALJ should consider factors such as the claimant's daily activities, treatments he has received for his symptoms, medications, and any other factors contributing to functional limitations. Id., at *5.

         At step four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has the ability to perform past relevant work based on the determined RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. ...


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