United States District Court, D. Maryland
November 8, 2017, Plaintiff Denise Marie Smith petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claim
for disability benefits. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the
parties' motions for summary judgment, and Ms.
Smith's reply. (ECF Nos. 17, 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 SSA if it
is supported by substantial evidence and in accordance with
the law. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Ms. Smith's
motion, grant the SSA's motion, and affirm the SSA's
judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). This letter explains my rationale.
Smith filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) in October, 2014, alleging a disability
onset date of July 2, 2013. (Tr. 189-97). Her claim was
denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 60-69, 71-81).
A hearing was held on November 10, 2016, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 34-58).
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 10-18). The Appeals
Council (“AC”) denied Ms. Smith's request for
review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the
final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Smith suffered from the severe impairments of
“lumbar degenerative disc disease with transforaminal
lumbar interbody fusion, degenerative disc disease of the
thoracic spine and degenerative disc disease of the cervical
spine.” (Tr. 12). Despite these impairments, the ALJ
determined that Ms. Smith retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)
except the claimant can climb ramps and stairs occasionally
but can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. The claimant
can occasionally stoop, balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl but
can have no exposure to unprotected heights.
13). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert
(“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Smith could
perform her past relevant work as an administrative assistant
and office manager, and that, therefore, she was not
disabled. (Tr. 17).
support of her appeal, Ms. Smith advances a single argument:
that the ALJ erred in the assignment of weight to the opinion
of her treating surgeon, Dr. Ravi Yalamanchili. Pl. Mot. at
11-15. Dr. Yalamanchili performed Ms. Smith's lumbar
spine surgeries in 2013 and her cervical spine surgery in
2016. (Tr. 401-05, 721-22). On October 7, 2016, Dr.
Yalamanchili submitted a form, largely suggesting that Ms.
Smith would retain the functional ability to perform
sedentary work. (Tr. 786-87). However, in relevant part, Dr.
Yalamanchili opined that Ms. Smith can sit for only three
hours total in an eight hour workday, and would miss work
three or four times a month as a result of her limitations.
Id. Those two restrictions would prevent Ms. Smith
from sustaining sedentary employment. (See Tr.
reviewing that form, the ALJ recognized Dr. Yalamanchili as a
“treating provider, ” but assigned his opinion
“partial weight, ” noting that the two provisions
listed above were “not consistent with the record as a
whole or internally consistent with this doctor's own
treatment notes.” (Tr. 16). The ALJ cited to specific,
substantial evidence supporting that assignment of only
partial weight: (1) Ms. Smith's report, at the August 30,
2016, appointment immediately preceding Dr.
Yalamanchili's opinion, that her pain was “0/10,
” that she had experienced “excellent relief of
her neck and arm symptoms” and was doing “very
well” other than “a mild ache in the back of her
neck once in a while” (Tr. 16, 723); (2) Ms. Smith
reported, at her appointment in April, 2014 which was the
last appointment following her lumbar spine surgery, that she
had “excellent relief” from the surgery,
(Tr. 16, 510); and (3) the fact that Ms. Smith sought no
lumbar spine treatment between April, 2014 and February,
2016, when her primary complaint was cervical, not lumbar,
pain. (Tr. 16). In light of those records, there is no
evident support for a conclusion that Ms. Smith could sit for
a total of only three hours per day.
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 (1971). Even if there is other evidence that
may support Ms. Smith'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) (citing Laws v.
Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966);
Snyder v. Ribicoff, 307 F.2d 518, 529 (4th Cir.
1962)). In light of the evidence the ALJ cited from Dr.
Yalamanchili's own treatment notes undermining the
limitations he ascribed, I must affirm the ALJ's
assignment of “partial weight.”
Smith argues that the ALJ lacked any medical support for the
conclusion that she would be capable of greater exertional
capacity than that suggested by Dr. Yalamanchili. Pl. Reply
at 1-2. However, the ALJ did assign “partial
weight” to the opinions of the non-examining State
agency medical consultants, who had opined that Ms. Smith
could perform work at the light exertional level. (Tr. 16,
66-67, 78-79). Accordingly, Ms. Smith's contention that
the ALJ issued a pure “lay opinion” with no
medical support is spurious, since the ALJ in fact had
medical opinions suggesting that she had a greater functional
capacity than sedentary work.
reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment, (ECF No. 17), is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment, (ECF No. 22), is GRANTED. The SSA's
judgment is AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). The Clerk is directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as
an opinion and docketed as an order.
Stephanie A. Gallagher United ...