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Hildebrandt v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 24, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.[1]



         Plaintiff Christina Ann Hildebrandt seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 13) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14).[2] Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's decision that she is not disabled. No. hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 13) is GRANTED.

         I Background

         Born in 1975, Plaintiff has a high-school education and previously worked as a nursing assistant and daycare teacher. R. at 27. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on February 6, 2014, alleging disability beginning on January 9, 2014, due to rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. R. at 20, 154-57, 178. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 68-92, 95-99. On May 9, 2016, ALJ Raghav Kotval held a hearing in Baltimore, Maryland, where Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 34-67. On June 29, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the alleged onset date of disability of January 9, 2014, through the date of the decision. R. at 17-33. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff's request for review on June 6, 2017. R. at 1-6, 149-53, 239-41. The ALJ's decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S.Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000).

         On July 11, 2017, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Upon the parties' consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case then was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.

         II Summary of Evidence

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         The ALJ reviewed Plaintiff's testimony in the ALJ's decision:

[Plaintiff] noted that she was 325 pounds, at 5'7”. She is left-handed. She and her husband live with her in-laws. The house has a staircase that she uses about three times per day. She can drive a car for 45 minutes to an hour. Her mother-in-law drove her to the hearing. [Plaintiff] took some college courses. She has past work as a certified nursing assistant and as a geriatric nursing assistant. She obtained certifications in both areas, and also has a certification to work at day cares and pre-schools. She testified that she stopped working in 2014 because she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and was experiencing significant pain. Her pain started in her hips, especially her right hip. She continued her care with her primary care doctor, Dr. Mata, who gave her infusions. They were helpful. She can no longer afford the infusions and they are no longer covered by insurance. Her husband helps with activities of daily life, such as dressing, because of her hand cramps. She lies down three or four hours out of an eight hour day. She stated that she is easily distracted because of her pain. She does not have a lot of energy. She can alternate between sitting and standing for about three hours and then needs to lie down for about the same amount of time. She does not use a computer. She takes Lexapro for depression. It is prescribed by her primary care provider. She does not see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

         R. at 24-25; see R. at 41-49, 51-60.

         B. VE Testimony

         The VE testified that a hypothetical individual with the same age, education, and work experience as Plaintiff and with the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) outlined below in Part III could not perform Plaintiff's past work but could perform the unskilled, sedentary jobs of document preparer, addresser, or order clerk.[3] R. at 62-63. An individual who could not stoop or who needed to lie down for two hours a day could not engage in competitive employment. R. at 64, 66. An individual missing more than twelve to fifteen days at work annually because of unscheduled absences would not be employable. R. at 66. To maintain employment, an individual would need to be productive at least 85% of the time on the job. R. at 66. With the exception of her testimony regarding a sit-stand option, the VE's testimony was consistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.[4] R. at 64-65.


         Summary of ALJ's Decision

         On June 29, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of disability of January 9, 2014; and (2) had an impairment or a combination of impairments considered to be “severe” on the basis of the requirements in the Code of Federal Regulations; but (3) did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments meeting or equaling one of the impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; and (4) was unable to perform her past relevant work; but (5) could perform other work in the national economy, such as a ...

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