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Beasley v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 21, 2018

Justin Beasley
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security[1]

          Timothy J. Sullivan United States Magistrate Judge

         Dear Counsel:

         On July 18, 2017, Plaintiff Justin Beasley (“Mr. Beasley”) petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny his 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. 14 & 15.) 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 Mr. Beasley's motion and grant the Acting Commissioner's motion. This letter explains my rationale.

         In his applications for DIB and SSI, Mr. Beasley alleged a disability onset date of September 1, 2009. (Tr. 15.) His applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on December 8, 2015, (Tr. 29-61), and the ALJ found that Mr. Beasley was not disabled under the Social Security Act (Tr. 15-23). The Appeals Council denied Mr. Beasley's request for review (Tr. 1-4), making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

         The ALJ evaluated Mr. Beasley'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 Mr. Beasley was not engaged in substantial gainful activity, and had not been engaged in substantial gainful activity since September 1, 2009. (Tr. 17.) At step two, the ALJ found that Mr. Beasley suffered from the severe impairment of Crohn's disease. (Tr. 17-18.) The ALJ found that Mr. Beasley's mental impairment of adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood was non-severe. (Tr. 18.) At step three, the ALJ found that Mr. Beasley'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. 19.) The ALJ determined that Mr. Beasley retained the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c), except that he is unable to stand for more than two hours in an eight-hour workday.[3] (Id.)

         At step four, relying on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ determined that Mr. Beasley was able to perform past relevant work as a mortgage processor. (Tr. 22.) Therefore, the ALJ found that Mr. Beasley was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 24.)

         Mr. Beasley raises three arguments in this appeal: (1) the ALJ did not provide a sufficient narrative discussion in connection with the RFC assessment (ECF No. 14-1 at 6); (2) the ALJ failed to follow the “slight abnormality” standard in finding that Mr. Beasley's mental impairment was non-severe (id. at 8); and (3) the ALJ failed to give adequate weight to Mr. Beasley's treating physician's opinion (id. at 9).

         Mr. Beasley first argues that the ALJ “clearly failed to satisfy her duty to include the function-by-function assessment in her decision.” (ECF No. 14-1 at 7.) Mr. Beasley argues that the ALJ “failed to include any limitations related to bathroom breaks or time off task in her RFC assessment, ” even after concluding that Mr. Beasley had the severe impairment of Crohn's disease. (Id.) The Acting Commissioner argues that the ALJ made sufficient findings based on the record evidence to support the RFC and to permit judicial review. (ECF No. 15-1 at 4-8.)

         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 Mr. Beasley's RFC based on the medical evidence. The ALJ summarized Mr. Beasley's medical records from August 2009 through November 2015 related to Crohn's disease and found that the condition “is generally controlled when [he] is complaint” with the treatment recommendations of his medical providers. The ALJ concluded that Mr. Beasley's history of sporadic treatment and medical noncompliance did not warrant any greater limitation beyond a reduced range of light work. (Tr. 20.) The ALJ also considered and gave great weight to the medical opinions of the State agency medical consultants that “[Mr. Beasley] could perform a full range of light work, but could only stand and walk for two hours in an eight-hour workday.” (Id. at 21-22.) The evidence summarized by the ALJ supports the finding that Mr. Beasley can perform light work except he is unable to stand for more than two hours in an eight hour workday. Because the ALJ's narrative RFC discussion and relevant citations to the record enable meaningful review of the RFC analysis, Mr. Beasley's first argument is without merit.

         Mr. Beasley's second argument is that the ALJ failed at step two to follow the “slight abnormality” standard in finding Mr. Beasley's mental impairment of adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood was not severe. (ECF No. 14-1 at 8-9.) Mr. Beasley contends that for the ALJ to make the non-severe determination, “[the ALJ] had to find that it was a slight abnormality (or a combination of slight abnormalities) that has no more than a minimal effect on the ability to do basic work activities” which, “clearly does not fit with” Mr. Beasley's GAF score of 50 as determined by Dr. Evelyn Fielding, the State agency psychologist.[4] (ECF No. 14-1 at 9). The ALJ gave “some weight” to the opinion of the State agency psychologist “who assessed [Mr. Beasley] with a Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) of 50.” (Tr. 22.) Mr. Beasley's sole argument is that the ALJ's assignment of “some weight” to Dr. Fielding's opinion is impossible to reconcile with the finding that he does not have a severe mental impairment. (ECF No. 14-1 at 9.) The Acting Commissioner argues that the ALJ did not err in giving “some weight” to the State agency psychologist and also finding that Mr. Beasley did not have a severe mental impairment. (ECF No. 15-1 at 8-10.)

         An impairment is considered “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1522(a), 416.922(a); SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304 (S.S.A. Oct. 25, 2017). Conversely, if an impairment “is a slight abnormality or a combination of slight abnormalities that causes no more than minimal functional limitations, ” it is not considered to be severe. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c).

         The review undertaken by the Court of the ALJ's decision is confined to whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence and whether correct legal standards were applied. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The Court will not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the ALJ. Id. While an ALJ must consider “all of the relevant medical and other evidence” in assessing a claimant's RFC, 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 416.945, “there is no rigid requirement that the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of evidence in his decision.” Reid v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec'y, 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam)).

         By giving “some weight” to the State agency psychologist's opinion, the ALJ found that Mr. Beasley had “no difficulties getting along with others, including those in authority, and his depression was . . . ‘largely situational.'” (Tr. 18.) The ALJ noted that Mr. Beasley sought “only minimal mental health treatment, [and] attended only two counseling sessions in June 2015 before being discharged for failing to comply with the attendance policy.” (Id.) The ALJ also considered the findings by the State agency psychologist that Mr. Beasley's memory was intact, that he could follow multi-step instructions, and that he had normal cognitive function. (Tr. 18, 456-457.) In addition, the ALJ cited the opinion of Dr. Nicole Mannis, a State agency psychological consultant, to support the finding that Mr. Beasley's mental impairment is not severe. (Tr. 19.) Dr. Mannis concluded that Mr. Beasley did not have a severe mental impairment. (Tr. 90.) Finally, Mr. Beasley's heavy reliance on the GAF score of 50 alone to support a severe mental impairment is not persuasive. This Court has made it clear that a GAF score itself is not determinative of a claimant's disability. Jenkins v. Comm'r. Soc. Sec. Admin., No. SAG-13-1967, 2014 WL 1870845, at *3 n.1 (D. Md. May 5, 2014); Walters v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. SAG-13-1777, 2014 ...


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