United States District Court, D. Maryland
NATHANIEL M. COSTLEY
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, [ECF Nos. 16, 17], and to make recommendations
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule
301.5(b)(ix). I have reviewed the filings, and 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 (“the SSA”) if it is
supported by substantial evidence, and if the SSA followed
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 recommend that the Court
deny Mr. Costley's motion, grant the SSA's motion,
and affirm the SSA's judgment pursuant to sentence four
of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
I note that one of Mr. Costley's assertions is that he
had an initial hearing before one Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”), Judge Vivian W. Mittleman, who made
certain representations at the hearing about her intent to
write an opinion granting benefits if Mr. Costley were to
provide paperwork about why he lost his prior jobs.
See Pl. Mot. at 3-4; (Tr. 85) (“So, you get me
that paperwork and we'll put it together and I will write
a legally sufficient Decision that says that while you're
in therapy, and working on this, you can't work.”).
Mr. Costley then attended two consultative examinations
(apparently ordered by ALJ Mittleman), provided some
additional records to the SSA, and requested a supplemental
hearing. (Tr. 10, 425, 1032-41). Before the supplemental
hearing, Mr. Costley's case was reassigned to a different
ALJ. (Tr. 10). Mr. Costley asserts that the second ALJ acted
in a “racist and sexist” manner, Pl. Mot. 4,
though I find no evidence to support those allegations in the
record. I do believe that ALJ Mittleman should not have made
representations about the potential outcome of the proceeding
until she had all of the evidence in front of her, as her
comments understandably created certain expectations on the
part of Mr. Costley. Unfortunately, although I understand why
the process of reassignment would appear unfair to Mr.
Costley given the statements ALJ Mittleman had made, this
Court is limited to reviewing the final decision rendered by
the second ALJ after a full hearing of all of the evidence.
See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (limiting judicial
review to “any final decision of the Commissioner of
Social Security made after a hearing to which [the claimant]
was a party.”). ALJ Mittleman never issued a final
decision for this Court to review, and the process of the
reassignment to a new ALJ is beyond the scope of this
Court's jurisdiction to consider. See id.
background, Mr. Costley filed his claim for Disability
Insurance Benefits in October, 2013, alleging a disability
onset date of June 24, 2009. (Tr. 323-24). His claim was
denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 206-09,
211-12). Mr. Costley had an initial pre-hearing conference
with a staff attorney, and then the hearing before ALJ
Mittleman on March 8, 2016. (Tr. 50-63, 64-88). The
supplemental hearing described above took place on October
26, 2016, and consisted of testimony from Mr. Costley, three
of his family members, and a vocational examiner
(“VE”). (Tr. 89-180) Following the supplemental
hearing, the ALJ issued a written opinion in which she
determined that Mr. Costley was not disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time
frame. (Tr. 10-34). On November 20, 2017, the Appeals Council
declined review, making the ALJ's decision the final,
reviewable decision of the SSA. (Tr. 1-6). Mr. Costley filed
the instant suit seeking review of that decision on January
19, 2018. [ECF No. 1].
found that, while Mr. Costley had some periods of substantial
gainful activity (“SGA”), there had been
continuous twelve month periods since his onset date during
which he did not engage in SGA. (Tr. 12-14). The ALJ further
concluded that Mr. Costley suffered from the severe
impairments of “degenerative disc disease and affective
disorder.” (Tr. 14). Despite these impairments, the ALJ
determined that Mr. Costley retained the residual functional
capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)
except he needs a break to sit for a few minutes after
standing for one hour. He needs a break to stand for a few
minutes after sitting for one hour. He can never climb
ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally climb ramps
and stairs. He can occasionally balance on uneven surfaces,
stoop, kneel, and crouch. He can frequently reach. He can
have occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and
20). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert
(“VE”), the ALJ determined that Mr. Costley could
perform several jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy, including assembler, inspector, and
electronics worker, and that, therefore, he was not disabled.
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 largely ruled in Mr.
Costley's favor at step one and determined that, despite
some work activity within the relevant time frame, there were
continuous 12-month periods during which he did not engage in
substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 12-14); see 20
C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i). The ALJ specified that her
remaining findings addressed the period(s) in which Mr.
Costley did not engage in substantial gainful activity.
(Tr.13). At step two, the ALJ considered the severity of each
of the impairments that Mr. Costley claimed prevented him
from working. See 20 C.F.R. §
416.920(a)(4)(ii). Although the ALJ deemed some impairments
to be either not medically determinable or non-severe, after
finding several of Mr. Costley's impairments to be
severe, (Tr. 14-17), the ALJ continued with the sequential
evaluation and considered, in assessing Mr. Costley's
RFC, the extent to which all of his mental and physical
impairments limited his ability to work, (Tr. 20-30).
three, the ALJ determined that Mr. Costley's severe
impairments did not meet, or medically equal, the criteria of
any listings. (Tr. 17-20). In particular, the ALJ considered
the specific requirements of Listings 1.04A (degenerative
disc disease), 12.04 (affective disorders), 12.08
(personality and impulse control disorders), and 12.09
(substance abuse disorders, now defunct). See 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 §§ 1.04A, 12.04,
12.08 (2016). The ALJ supported her conclusion that Listing
1.04A was not met with detailed references to Mr.
Costley's medical records. (Tr. 17-18). The ALJ concluded
that Mr. Costley had mild restriction in his activities of
daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning,
and mild difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace.
(Tr. 18-19). The ALJ also found no episodes of decompensation
of extended duration. Id. The ALJ supported those
assessments with citations to the evidence of record.
Id. Under the mental health listings, a claimant
would need to 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. 1
§ 12.04. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err by concluding
that the listings were not met.
considering Mr. Costley's RFC, the ALJ summarized his
subjective complaints from his testimony at both hearings,
along with the testimony provided by his three family
members. (Tr. 20-21). The ALJ then engaged in a detailed and
extensive review of Mr. Costley's daily activities and
medical records. (Tr. 22-29). The ALJ noted that Mr.
Costley's testimony that he can barely walk stood in
contrast to his ability to attend sporting events for his
son, to perform job duties for some of the positions he had
held during the alleged period of disability, and to attain
normal or relatively normal findings on physical
examinations. (Tr. 23-24). The ALJ also noted that, two days
before the alleged onset date, Mr. Costley told his employer
that he would be able to complete his internship if given the
opportunity, which undermines his contention that he had
disabling physical impairments. (Tr. 23).
to the mental impairments, the ALJ noted that Mr.
Costley's primary care physician had certified that he
was “mentally stable enough to hold a commercial
driver's license for a continuous four-year period since
the alleged onset date, ” and that Mr. Costley had
denied psychiatric or mental symptoms on numerous
examinations over the years. (Tr. 24). The ALJ also stated
that, in her testimony, “[t]he claimant's wife did
not mention any psychological problems until prompted by the
claimant.” (Tr. 24). The ALJ discussed the modest
findings from the second consultative State agency
psychiatrist, Dr. Langlieb. Id.The ALJ acknowledged
that while the record demonstrates that Mr. Costley has had
some problems getting along with others at work, at other
times he has held jobs requiring extensive social
functioning, such as car salesman and sports coach. (Tr.
24-25). The ALJ also noted that Mr. Costley was able to run
for city council and participate in a debate, and had been
polite and respectful during the Social Security proceedings
and his various doctors' appointments. (Tr. 25). Mr.
Costley had also held jobs requiring significant
concentration, persistence, and pace, particularly the
positions of car salesman and teacher for Rite of Passage.
Id. The ALJ noted that Mr. Costley had told
physicians that prescribed psychotropic medications were
helpful, but that he had testified to ALJ Mittleman that he
refused to take those medications. (Tr. 26). Despite
referrals from various medical sources, Mr. Costley had been
noncompliant with both physical and mental treatment
recommendations. (Tr. 26-27).
the ALJ discussed evidence suggesting that Mr. Costley's
termination from various jobs had not been related to his
anger issues. (Tr. 27-29). For example, “the record
shows that the claimant resigned from his job at Enterprise
in 2007 to return to college to earn his Masters Degree in
Business Administration” (Tr. 28), that he was
terminated from an internship in part due to poor attendance
and unexcused absences, id., that he left his
substitute teaching job “because he was not given a
raise, ” id., and that, with respect to the
job as car salesman, he “did not like the job and
left.” Id. In addition, Mr. Costley had made
other allegations about his inability to obtain or keep a job
because of his status as an “ex offender, ” not
because of his physical or mental limitations. (Tr. 28-29).
also assessed and made assignments of weight to the medical
opinions in the record. (Tr. 29-31). In particular, the ALJ
assigned “great weight” to the opinions from the
consultative State agency medical experts, which were
“more limiting than the physical examination opinions
provided by the claimant's primary care physician, Dr.
Alongi.” (Tr. 29). The ALJ assigned “little
weight” to medical opinions from Dr. Howard Hoffberg
and Dr. Roger Theodore, (Tr. 1328-33, 1561-62, 1564-67),
citing the lack of a longitudinal treating relationship and
the inconsistency with the record as a whole. (Tr. 29). As to
Mr. Costley's mental impairments, the ALJ assigned
“partial weight” to the opinions of the
consultative State agency experts, because the ALJ believed
Mr. Costley to be more limited in social functioning than
those doctors had determined. (Tr. 29-30). The ALJ assigned
“little weight” to Dr. Alongi's opinion that
Mr. Costley was disabled due to depression, citing Dr.
Alongi's lack of specialty in mental health, Mr.
Costley's minimal mental health treatment, and the
inconsistent reports from the State agency mental ...