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. 4). I have
considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. (ECF Nos. 19, 20). 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 SSA 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 the Court
deny Ms. Cuba's motion, grant the SSA's motion, and
affirm the SSA's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g).
Cuba applied for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income
(“SSI”) on May 31, 2013, alleging a disability
onset date of January 1, 2009. (Tr. 188-94, 195-200). Her
application was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
82-99, 102-21, 124-28, 134-37). An Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) held a hearing on May 27, 2016, at which
Ms. Cuba was represented by counsel. (Tr. 38-81). Following
the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Cuba was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr.
20-33). The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Ms.
Cuba's request for further review, (Tr. 1-6), so the
ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision
of the Agency.
found that Ms. Cuba suffered from the severe impairments of
“seizure disorder, lumbar degenerative disc disease,
and obesity.” (Tr. 23). Despite these impairments, the
ALJ determined that Ms. Cuba retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except she can never climb ladders, ropes or
scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps or stairs,
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and she must avoid
concentrated exposure to workplace hazards, such as
unprotected machinery and unprotected heights.
(Tr. 25). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that Ms. Cuba was
capable of performing her past relevant work as an office
assistant and admissions assistant, as well as other jobs
existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr.
31-32). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Cuba was not
disabled. (Tr. 32-33).
appeal, Ms. Cuba raises several arguments, including that:
(1) the ALJ “fail[ed] to properly consider the effects
of morbid obesity on the medically determinable impairments
to make a determination whether the impairments or
combination thereof meet or equal a listing, ” (ECF No.
19 at 3); and (2) the ALJ did not “fully and fairly
develop the record by making determinations regarding Ms.
Cuba's impairments by substituting his own judgment for
those of medical professionals, ” id. at 4.
Each argument lacks merit for the reasons set forth below.
Ms. Cuba argues that the ALJ failed to properly consider the
effects of morbid obesity in his listing analysis. (ECF No.
19 at 3). Social Security Ruling 02-1p (“SSR
02-1p”) provides that the ALJ will consider obesity in
determining whether the claimant has a medically determinable
impairment, whether the claimant's impairment is severe,
whether the claimant's impairment meets or equals the
criteria of any listings, and whether the claimant's
impairment prevents her from doing past relevant work or
other work existing in significant numbers in the national
economy. SSR 02-1p, 2002 WL 34686281, at *3 (S.S.A. Sept. 12,
2002). Importantly, the claimant bears the burden to produce
evidence that she had an impairment that met or equaled the
criteria of any listings. Hancock v. Astrue, 667
F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing Hunter v.
Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam));
see also Thompson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., No.
TJS-12-3331, 2014 WL 992528, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 12, 2014)
(“The claimant carries the burden of showing how h[er]
obesity affects h[er] ability to perform work-related
functions.”) (citing Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d
1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995)).
to Ms. Cuba's argument, the ALJ adequately assessed Ms.
Cuba's obesity during the listing analysis. The ALJ noted
that, “[e]ven though there is no specific medical
listing regarding obesity, [he] ha[s] evaluated the
impairment below pursuant to the guidelines set forth in
[SSR] 02-1p (see Finding 5).” (Tr. 25).
Although the ALJ's discussion of Ms. Cuba's obesity
during the listing analysis was limited, the ALJ later cited
to medical records and thoroughly evaluated the effects of
obesity on Ms. Cuba's RFC elsewhere in the decision.
See (Tr. 30). Citing to the treatment records from
Ms. Cuba's primary treating physician, the ALJ noted
that, between October of 2013 until March of 2015, Ms.
Cuba's body mass index (“BMI”) ranged from
28.41 to 29.53. Id. (citations omitted). The ALJ
then concluded that Ms. Cuba's obesity did not
“seriously compromise [her] capacity to perform at
least light work” for several reasons. Id.
First, the ALJ found that the obesity “has not
seriously affected the claimant's ability to use the
upper extremities or in fact to get around on a regular
basis, given her normal appearing gait and ability to shop
and vacuum.” Id. In particular, the ALJ cited
to Dr. Hooshang Hodjati's August 24, 2013 physical
examination records, id., which noted that Ms. Cuba
“does not show any difficulty with ambulation . . .
[and] is able to get on and off exam table and up and out of
chair with no difficulty.” (Tr. 364). Dr. Hodjati also
indicated that Ms. Cuba “d[id] not use any assistive
device for ambulation, ” did not exhibit “any
difficulty with weightbearing or walking, ” and was
“able to walk on level ground up to a mile.” (Tr.
the ALJ found that “there is no indication that the
claimant's obesity has resulted in any other clinical
manifestations, including severe edema of the lower
extremities, chest pain, or severe shortness of
breath.” (Tr. 30) (citing 360-66, 454-521). To support
his finding, the ALJ cited to Dr. Hodjati's examination
records, as well as the treatment notes of Ms. Cuba's
treating physician, Dr. Nnaemeka Agajelu. Id. During
a September 16, 2015 appointment, for example, Dr. Agajelu
found “no edema” in Ms. Cuba's extremities,
and noted that Ms. Cuba's lungs exhibited “good air
movement, [and] no wheezes, rales, [or] rhonchi.” (Tr.
466); see also (Tr. 458) (Dr. Agajelu's March
14, 2016 progress notes, noting that Ms. Cuba's lungs
exhibited “good air movement, [and] no wheezes, rales,
[or] rhonchi”). Notably, Ms. Cuba has not identified or
cited to evidence of any particular limitations that are
caused by her obesity. See McNeill v. Comm'r, Soc.
Sec. Admin., Civil No. SAG-14-2307, 2015 WL 5157493, at
*2 (D. Md. Aug. 31, 2015) (holding that the ALJ adequately
discussed the effects of the claimant's obesity in part
because there is “no indication in the record that [the
claimant's] obesity would medically equal any other
listing”); see also Brown v. Astrue, Civil No.
JKS-09-1792, 2011 WL 129006, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 14, 2011)
(denying remand where the claimant failed to identify any
evidence suggesting that his obesity caused greater
limitations than the ALJ assigned). Accordingly, in light of
the evidence of record, the ALJ properly evaluated Ms.
Cuba's obesity in accordance with SSR 02-1p.
Cuba also argues that the ALJ failed to fully and fairly
develop the record by substituting his own judgment for those
of medical professionals. (ECF No. 19 at 5). Specifically,
Ms. Cuba contends that the ALJ erroneously concluded
“that Ms. Cuba's seizures would be under control if
she was compliant with her prescribed medication.”
Id. (citing (Tr. 29)). The ALJ “has a duty to
explore all relevant facts and inquire into the issues
necessary for adequate development of the record.”
Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1173 (4th Cir. 1986)
(citations omitted). Here, the ALJ found that Ms. Cuba's
“seizure disorder appeared to be relatively controlled
with the use of appropriate medicines, and she admitted to a
recurrence of seizures when not taking her antiepileptic
prescriptions.” (Tr. 29). In doing so, the ALJ cited to
and discussed the medical evidence, including a April 7, 2015
treatment record noting that Ms. Cuba “has seizures if
she misses a dose of her [antiepileptic medication].”
(Tr. 28, 438). Thus, the ALJ properly relied on the medical
evidence in reaching his conclusion that Ms. Cuba was not
disabled. I, therefore, recommend that the ALJ's decision
reasons set forth above, I respectfully recommend that:
1. the Court GRANT Defendant's Motion for Summary