United States District Court, D. Maryland
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-captioned case has been
referred to me to review 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. 8]. I have
considered the parties' cross-dispositive motions. [ECF
Nos. 22, 23]. I find that no hearing is necessary.
See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This Court must
uphold the decision of the Social Security Administration
(“SSA”) if it is supported by substantial
evidence and if the Agency employed proper legal standards.
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). For the
reasons set forth below, I recommend that both motions be
denied, that the SSA's decision be reversed in part, and
that the case be remanded to the SSA for further analysis.
West filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and
Supplemental Security Income in July, 2014, originally
alleging a disability onset of January 1, 2014. (Tr. 181-91). His
applications were denied initially and on reconsideration.
(Tr. 99-128). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)
held a hearing on January 25, 2017. (Tr. 29-62). Following
the hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. West was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 15-28). The Appeals Council
denied Mr. West's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the SSA.
found that Mr. West suffered from the severe impairments of
diabetes mellitus and right eye macular degeneration. (Tr.
20). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Mr.
West retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except he must avoid concentrated exposure to
moderate noise and hazards, and he cannot perform work tasks
requiring depth perception.
(Tr. 21). After considering testimony from a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. West
could perform his past relevant work as a substance abuse
counselor, and that, therefore, he was not disabled. (Tr.
West raises a number of arguments on appeal, including: (1)
that the ALJ should have found “wet macular
degeneration” to be a severe impairment at step two;
(2) that the ALJ insufficiently considered the relevant
Listings at step three; (3) that the ALJ should have
considered the treatment notes from Mr. West's treating
ophthalmologist to be opinion evidence; and (4) that the
ALJ's RFC assessment was not based on any medical
opinions in the record. Pl. Mot. 2-17. I agree that portions
of the ALJ's analysis are deficient, and I therefore
two of Mr. West's arguments are unpersuasive. First, the
ALJ determined that Mr. West suffered from the severe
impairment of “right eye macular degeneration.”
(Tr. 20). The omission of the word “wet” from the
description of his diagnosis, at step two, does not warrant
remand. A claimant's burden of showing one or more severe
impairments at step two is only a “de minimis
screening device used to dispose of groundless claims.”
Taylor v. Astrue, Civil No. BPG-11-032, 2012 WL
294532, at *8 (D. Md. Jan. 31, 2012) (quoting Webb v.
Barnhart, 433 F.3d 683, 687 (9th Cir. 2005) (emphasis
added)); see also Felton-Miller v. Astrue, 459
Fed.Appx. 226, 230 (4th Cir. 2011) (“Step two of the
sequential evaluation is a threshold question with a de
minimis severity requirement.”) (citing Bowen
v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 153-54 (1987); SSR 88-3c, 1988
WL 236022 (S.S.A. 1988)). Once a severe impairment is found,
the ALJ continues with the sequential evaluation and
considers how each of the claimant's impairments impacts
his ability to perform work. See 20 C.F.R §
404.1520. Later in his decision the ALJ noted Mr. West was
diagnosed with “wet macular degeneration.” (Tr.
22). Although, as described below, I do believe the ALJ's
subsequent evaluation of Mr. West's visual condition was
deficient, the description of his macular degeneration during
the threshold finding at step two does not provide a basis
Mr. West's argument that the treatment notes from his
ophthalmologist, Dr. Laird, should have been treated as a
medical opinion lacks merit. Opinion evidence relates to a
claimant's ability to perform work-related functions.
See SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183 (S.S.A. 1996); 20
C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(1) (“Medical opinions are
statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect
judgments about the nature and severity of your
impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and
prognosis, what you can still do despite impairment(s), and
your physical or mental restrictions.”). Although Dr.
Laird's treatment notes do contain diagnoses and
information about the severity of Mr. West's impairments,
(Tr. 329-89), they do not contain Dr. Laird's judgments
on Mr. West's vocational restrictions or his ability to
perform tasks. Moreover, if every treatment note or progress
report (most of which contain symptoms and diagnoses) were to
constitute a medical opinion, the requirement that an ALJ
assign weight to each medical opinion in the record would be
simply unsustainable. In this case, Mr. West did not offer
any opinion evidence from Dr. Laird, or any other treating or
examining medical sources.
those two unpersuasive arguments, I agree with Mr. West that
the ALJ's opinion is deficient in two other respects: (1)
his listing analysis and (2) his overall evaluation of Mr.
West's visual impairment as it affects his RFC assessment
and his ability to perform past relevant work.
with the ALJ's listing analysis, the ALJ found the
No treating or examining physician has indicated finding
[sic] that would satisfy the severity requirements of any
listed impairment. Particular attention was given to the
listings in sections 2.02-2.04 and 11.02, but the available
medical evidence did not demonstrate the specified criteria
required of any listing.
(Tr. 21). In Fox v. Colvin, 632 Fed.Appx. 750 (4th
Cir. 2015), the Fourth Circuit clarified the evidentiary
requirements needed to support an ALJ's determination of
whether any of a claimant's impairments meets a listing
at step three of the sequential evaluation. The ALJ in
Although the claimant has “severe” impairments,
they do not meet the criteria of any listed impairments
described in Appendix 1 of the Regulations (20 CFR, Subpart
P, Appendix 1). No. treating or examining physician has
mentioned findings equivalent in severity to the criteria of
any listed impairment, nor does the evidence show medical
findings that are the same or equivalent to those of any
listed impairment of the Listing of ...