United States District Court, D. Maryland
ROBERT L. BURCHETT, JR.,
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY
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 parties' dispositive
motions and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). [ECF No.
13]. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for
summary judgment. [ECF Nos. 20, 21]. Plaintiff Robert L.
Burchett, Jr., who is appearing pro se, did not
respond to the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) Motion for Summary
Judgment. This Court must uphold the SSA's
decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if
proper legal standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. §§
405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514,
517 (4th Cir. 1987). I find that no hearing is necessary.
See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). 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).
Burchett filed his applications for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplement Security Income
(“SSI”) on September 30, 2014, alleging a
disability onset date of November 1, 2011. (Tr. 211-14,
215-23). His claims were denied initially and on
reconsideration. (Tr. 66-77, 78-89, 92-107, 108-23, 131-34).
A hearing, at which Mr. Burchett was represented by counsel,
was held on January 25, 2017. (Tr. 34-65). After the hearing,
the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an
opinion denying benefits. (Tr. 15-28). The Appeals Council
(“AC”) denied review, (Tr. 1-6), making the
ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the
found that, during the relevant time frame, Mr. Burchett
suffered from the severe impairments of “degenerative
joint disease of the right shoulder, degenerative disc
disease, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety
disorder, and polysubstance abuse.” (Tr. 17). Despite
these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr. Burchett
retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”)
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b), except the claimant can lift and carry twenty
pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and walk
for six out of eight hours; and sit for six out of eight
hours. The claimant can occasionally climb stairs, balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but cannot climb ladders.
The claimant can occasionally reach overhead. He requires the
option to stand for thirty minutes and then sit for five
minutes as needed throughout the day. He cannot have
concentrated exposure to hazards. The claimant is limited to
simple, routine tasks that are not fast paced and that do not
have strict production demands. He claimant [sic] cannot
perform teamwork. The claimant is limited to occasional
contact with supervisors and coworkers, but cannot have any
contact with the general public. He is also limited to low
stress work, which is defined as occasional decisionmaking
and occasional changes in work setting.
20). After considering testimony from a vocational expert
(“VE”), the ALJ determined that there were jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy that
Mr. Burchett could perform. (Tr. 27-28). Therefore, the ALJ
concluded that Mr. Burchett was not disabled. (Tr. 28).
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 Mr.
Burchett's favor at step one and determined that he had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged
onset date. (Tr. 17); 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 Mr. Burchett claimed
prevented him from working. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(ii). After finding several of Mr.
Burchett's impairments to be severe, (Tr. 17-18), the ALJ
continued with the sequential evaluation and considered, in
assessing Mr. Burchett's RFC, the extent to which all of
his impairments limited his ability to work.
three, the ALJ determined that Mr. Burchett's severe
impairments did not meet, or medically equal, the criteria of
any listings. (Tr. 18-20). In particular, the ALJ considered
the specific requirements of Listing 1.02 (“Major
dysfunction of a joint(s)”), Listing 1.04
(“Disorders of the spine”), and Listings 12.00
et seq. (“Mental Disorders”).
See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1,
§§ 1.02, 1.04, 12.00-12.15. Regarding Listing 1.02,
the ALJ found that “[t]he objective medical evidence
does not show the claimant is unable to perform fine and
gross movements effectively.” (Tr. 18); see 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1 § 1.00(B)(2)(c)
(“Inability to perform fine and gross movements
effectively means an extreme loss of function of both upper
extremities . . . .”). The ALJ further noted that,
“although the claimant has some tenderness and limited
range of motion in his right shoulder, he has full motion in
his left shoulder, normal grip bilaterally, and full use of
both hands.” Id. (citing Tr. 490-93). In doing
so, the ALJ cited to the opinion of consultative examiner,
Dr. Lawrence Honick, who found “a full range of motion
of all joints with good strength and no instability[, ] . . .
[and] no sensory deficits in the hands.” (Tr. 491).
Regarding Listing 1.04, the ALJ found that the evidence
“does not show motor loss accompanied by sensory or
reflex loss with positive sitting and supine straight-leg
raise tests” during a 12-month period. (Tr. 18).
Additionally, the ALJ observed that the evidence “does
not contain a diagnosis or spinal arachnoiditis confirmed by
biopsy or medically acceptable imaging, . . . [or] lumbar
spinal stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication, established
by findings on appropriate medically acceptable imaging,
manifested by chronic nonradicular pain and weakness, and an
inability to ambulate effectively . . . .” Id.
to the mental health listings, the ALJ concluded that Mr.
Burchett had “mild” limitation in understanding,
remembering or applying information; “moderate”
limitation in social functioning; “moderate”
limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace; and
“mild” limitation in adapting and managing
himself. (Tr. 18-19). The ALJ supported these conclusions
with citations to the evidence, including Mr. Burchett's
statements, treatment records, and examination reports.
Id. Under the mental health listings, a claimant
must show at least two areas of marked difficulty, or
repeated episodes of decompensation, to meet the listing
criteria. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x
1 §§ 12.00-12.15. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err
in her conclusion that the listings were not met.
considering Mr. Burchett's RFC, the ALJ summarized Mr.
Burchett's allegations about his inability to work. (Tr.
21). The ALJ then engaged in a detailed review of the
evidence of record, including treatment notes, examination
records, and Mr. Burchett's own statements. (Tr. 21-26).
Regarding Mr. Burchett's degenerative disc disease and
right shoulder impairment, the ALJ noted that Mr.
Burchett's “infrequent treatment was only routine
and conservative, ” his objective examination resulted
in “relatively normal findings, ” and Mr.
Burchett's daily living activities included “doing
yard work and cleaning for cash.” (Tr. 21).
Accordingly, the ALJ accounted for Mr. Burchett's
impairments with a limitation to “the reduced range of
light work set forth above, including only occasionally
reaching overhead and the option to change positions between
sitting and standing as set forth above.” Id.
to the mental impairments, the ALJ again summarized Mr.
Burchett's medical records, including Mr. Burchett's
“improvement and stabilization with treatment, as well
as his apparent ability to work on at least a part-time basis
since his alleged onset date.” (Tr. 23-24). The ALJ,
for example, observed that Mr. Burchett's treating
psychiatrist “noted that the claimant reported his
medications were helping, his depression was getting better
and his anxiety was decreased, ” (Tr. 23), and that he
was “'doing well' and did not feel depressed or
anxious as long as he was taking his medications, ”
also evaluated the opinion evidence pertaining to Mr.
Burchett's medical impairments. The ALJ assigned
“great” weight to the opinions of the State
agency medical consultants, Drs. M. Ahn and S.K. Najar, and
adopted the exertional limitations set forth in Dr. Ahn's
opinion. (Tr. 25). Additionally, the ALJ assigned
“partial” weight to the opinions of the
consultative examiner, Dr. Honick, after noting that his
recommended limitations of sedentary work and no
“bending, stooping, or lifting” were
“inconsistent with the claimant's own reports . . .
that he could lift forty pounds” and “not
supported by his objective examination which found only
slight tenderness to palpation and decreased range of motion
in the lower back and right shoulder, but was otherwise
normal.” Id. (citation omitted). The ALJ also
gave “great” weight to the opinions of State
agency psychological consultants, Drs. E. Lessans and Tracey
Morse, who opined that Mr. Burchett could “understand,
retain, and carry out simple instructions on a sustained
basis with normal functioning, and could perform simple tasks
and transactions and relate with co-workers and the public on
a limited basis.” Id. (citations omitted). The
ALJ then afforded “little” weight to the opinion
of treating psychiatrist, Dr. Irfan Saeed, after finding that
Dr. Saeed's recommendations were “inconsistent with
the objective evidence in the record, including Dr.
Saeed's own treatment records . . . [and] the
claimant's work activity that is noted throughout the
record.” Id. Finally, the ALJ assigned
“limited” weight to Mr. Burchett's Global
Assessment of Functioning (“GAF”) scores ranging
from 33 to 75, and noted that the GAF scores “improved
consistently with treatment to represent only
mild-to-moderate symptoms, which [he] find[s] is consistent
with the treatment records . . . showing the claimant's
improvement and stabilization with medication and
treatment.” (Tr. 26).
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 Mr. Burchett'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 ...