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Chestnut v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

September 24, 2018

Chestnut
v.
Berryhill [1]

          BENJAMIN B. PREVAS SPECIAL ASSISTANT UNITED STATES ATTORNEY

          ORDER

         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before this Court, by the parties' consent, are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 11, 12). The Court must uphold the Social Security Administration (“SSA”)'s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the Agency employed proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) (2016); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The substantial evidence rule “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. This Court shall not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the SSA. Id. Upon review of the pleadings and the record, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion is DENIED and Defendant's Motion is GRANTED. I am affirming the SSA's judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed a Title II Application for Disability Insurance Benefits on December 24, 2015, alleging that disability began October 1, 2014. (Tr. 17). This claim was denied on March 17, 2016 and upon reconsideration, denied again on May 26, 2016. Id. Plaintiff's request for a hearing was granted and the hearing was conducted on December 20, 2016 by Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Andrew Emerson. Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under §§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act on February 9, 2017. (Tr. 34). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 20, 2017. (Tr. 1-3). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff has a right of review after the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which she was a party and thus filed her claim in this Court on June 20, 2017. (ECF No. 1). The ALJ's opinion became the final and reviewable decision of the SSA. (Tr. 2).

         The issue before this Court is not whether the Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589; 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff argues first that the ALJ erred in his evaluation of the medical evidence, his assessment of the medical impairment listings, Plaintiff's Residual Function Capacity (“RFC”), exertional and non-exertional limitations, and Plaintiff's credibility. (ECF No. 11 at 1). Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ did not meaningfully consider the vocational evidence and erred in his evaluation of the vocational expert opinion evidence. Id. Defendant counters that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the SSA's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 12 at 1).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Medical Evidence and Listings

         Plaintiff contends that the determination that the Plaintiff is not disabled is unsupported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to note certain medical impairments as severe at Step 2. (ECF No. 11 at 9). If all of the evidence, including medical records and opinions, that the ALJ receives is consistent, then there is sufficient evidence for the ALJ to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520b(a). The ALJ will then go through the five-step sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) to determine whether a claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(a)(4). If the ALJ finds that a claimant is disabled or not disabled at a step, he can make his determination or decision and not go on to the next step. Id. If the ALJ cannot find that claimant is disabled or not disabled at a step, he will proceed to the next step. Id. At step 2 of the SEP, the ALJ will determine the medical severity of the claimant's impairment(s). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the at least twelve month long duration requirement in § 404.1509, or a combination of impairments that are severe and meet the duration requirement, the ALJ will find that a claimant is not disabled. Id.; see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1509. The regulations define an impairment as “not severe” when it is unlikely to result in disability, even when the claimant's age, education, and experience are taken into account. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521.

         1. The ALJ's Findings

         a. Mental Impairments When a claimant alleges mental impairments, the ALJ will look at the “paragraph B criteria” to assess how an alleged mental disorder limits the claimant's functioning. 20 C.F.R. Part 404 Subpart P. App. 1, Part A2 § 12.00 2(b). The criteria are: (1) understanding, remembering, or applying information; (2) interacting with others; (3) concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and (4) adapting or managing oneself (“paragraph B criteria). Id. To satisfy the paragraph B criteria, claimant's mental disorder(s) must result in an “extreme” limitation of one, or “marked” limitation of two of the four areas of mental functioning. Id. Although the claimant asserts otherwise, the ALJ properly considered the paragraph B criteria. (Tr. 21).

         First, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's ability to understand, remember, and apply information was only mildly limited, as Plaintiff's medical records and testimony show that although she suffered from PTSD related symptoms including depression, anxiety, and insomnia, the Plaintiff was taking medication and participating in counseling. (Tr. 21, 74-75). Second, the ALJ also found that the Plaintiff's ability to take an online MBA course indicated that she was only somewhat limited in her ability to understand, remember, and apply information. (Tr. 21, 71). Third, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had only a mild limitation in the area of interacting with others, as evidenced by her trips out of state to meet her significant other and attend events, and her socialization with childhood and military friends (Tr. 21-22, 54-58). Fourth, the ALJ found that Plaintiff experienced a mild limitation in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace due to Plaintiff's mental status examinations indicating that her memory and concentration are generally within normal limits, and that she is able to perform daily tasks and chores, drive, shop, and attend school. (Tr. 22, 47-50, 53-58). Finally, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has no limitation in adapting or managing herself, as shown by Plaintiff's testimony regarding her general schedule. (Tr. 22, 68-71).

         b. Physical Impairments

         For physical impairments, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to find substantial evidence that the Plaintiff's idiopathic peripheral autonomic tenosynovitis, connective tissue disorder, and labral tear were not severe. (ECF No. 11 at 9). Without objective medical evidence of a medically determinable impairment that could cause the symptom(s) a claimant alleged, an ALJ may conclude that a claimant was not limited by a severe impairment. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 658 (4th Cir. 2005) (finding that without objective medical evidence of a medically determinable impairment that could cause the symptoms that the Plaintiff suffers in her hands, the ALJ properly concluded that Johnson was not limited by a severe hand impairment). In this case, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff's idiopathic peripheral autonomic tenosynovitis was not a medically determinable ...


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