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Spitzbarth v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

September 28, 2018

MARK EDWARD SPITZBARTH, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. David Copperthite, United States Magistrate Judge.

         On October 4, 2017, Mark Edward Spitzbarth ("Plaintiff") petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's ("SSA") final decision to deny his claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See ECF No. 1 ("the Complaint"). After consideration of the Complaint and the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 13, 16), the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2016). In addition, for the reasons that follow. Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) is DENIED and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16) is GRANTED.

         Procedural History

         On May 9, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for SSI, alleging disability beginning on November 9, 2013. His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration on December 2, 2014 and May 27, 2015, respectively. Subsequently, on June 2, 2015, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and, on September 19, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") presided over a video hearing. On October 14. 2016. the ALJ rendered a decision ruling that Plaintiff "ha[d] not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act [(the "Act")], since May 9. 2014, the date the application was filed." ECF No. 10 at 46. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's disability determination and. on August 14, 2017. the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review. Thus, the decision rendered by the ALJ became the final decision of the SSA. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481 (2018); see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07(2000).

         On October 4. 2017, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the SSA's denial of his disability application. On April 18, 2018. Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and on August 6, 2018, after receiving an extension of time for filing, Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment.[2] This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed both parties' motions.

         Standard of Review

         "This Court is authorized to review the [SSA]"s denial of benefits under 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g)." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (citation omitted). The Court, however, does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence. Instead, the Court's review of an SSA decision is deferential, as "[t]he findings of the [SSA] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996) ("The duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court."): Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343. 345 (4th Cir. 1986) ("We do not conduct a de novo review of the evidence, and the [SSA]'s finding of non- disability is to be upheld, even if the court disagrees, so long as it is supported by substantial evidence." (citations omitted)). Therefore, the issue before the reviewing court is not whether the plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that the plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Brown v. Comm'r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017) ("[A] reviewing court must uphold the [disability] determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence." (citation and internal quotation marks omitted)).

         "Substantial evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion. It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance." Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "In reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Therefore, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court shall determine whether the ALJ has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to that evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         In order to be eligible for SSI, a claimant must establish that she is under disability within the meaning of the Act. The term "disability," for purposes of the Act, is defined as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a). A claimant shall be determined to be under disability where "his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age. education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In determining whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ, acting on behalf of the SSA, follows the five-step evaluation process outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The evaluation process is sequential, meaning that "[i]f at any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be made, the SSA will not review the claim further." Barnhart v. Thomas. 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one. the ALJ considers the claimant's work activity to determine if the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is engaged in "substantial gainful activity." then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i). 416.920(b).

         At step two, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment [or combination of impairments) that meets the duration requirement[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). 416.920(a)(4)(H). If the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments meeting the durational requirement of twelve months, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(h), 416.920(c).

         At step three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or medically equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). 416.920(d); see Radford v. Colvin. 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).

         Prior to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), which is then used at the fourth and fifth steps of the analysis. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). RFC is an assessment of an individual's ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at »1 (July 2, 1996). The ALJ must consider even those impairments that are not "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).

         In determining RFC. the ALJ evaluates the claimant's subjective symptoms (e.g., allegations of pain) using a two-part test. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585. 594 (4th Cir. 1996); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. First, the ALJ must determine whether objective evidence shows the existence of a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the actual alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Once the claimant makes that threshold showing, the ALJ must evaluate the extent to which the symptoms limit the claimant's capacity to work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(1). At this second stage, the ALJ must consider all of the available evidence, including medical history, objective medical evidence, and statements by the claimant. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). The ALJ must assess the credibility of the claimant's statements, as symptoms can sometimes manifest at a greater level of severity of impairment than is shown by solely objective medical evidence. SSR 16-3p. 2017 WL 5180304. at *2-13 (Oct. 25, 2017). To assess credibility, the ALJ should consider factors such as the claimant's daily activities. treatments she has received for her symptoms, medications, and any other factors contributing to functional limitations. Id. at *6-8.

         At step four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has the ability to perform past relevant work based on the determined RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). 404.1520(e). 416.920(a)(4)(iv). 416.920(e).

         Where the claimant is unable to resume past relevant work, the ALJ proceeds to the fifth and final step of the sequential analysis. During steps one through four of the evaluation, the claimant has the burden of proof. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. 416.920; see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 (1987); Radford, 734 F.3d at 291. At step five, however, the burden of proof shifts to the ALJ to prove: (1) that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant's age. education, work experience, and RFC (as determined at step four), and; (2) that such alternative work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v); see Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-73; Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir. 2002). If the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g)(1), 404.1560(c), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot perform other work, then the claimant is disabled. Id.

         ALJ Determination

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation and found at step one that Plaintiff "ha[d] not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 9, 2014, the application date." ECF No. 10 at 33. At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of "diffuse degenerative disc disease, left ankle bone spur, hypertension, mood disorder not otherwise specified (NOS), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit disorder, and personality disorder." Id. At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. Id. at 34. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b). [Plaintiff] can frequently balance. He can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl and climb ramps and stairs. He may not climb ladders. ropes, or scaffolds and should avoid workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous, moving machinery. He should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold. [Plaintiff] is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple tasks. There should be no work requiring a high-quota production-rate pace (i.e.. rapid assembly line work where coworkers are side-by-side and the work of one affects the work of the other). Changes should be easily explained and no more than occasional. He can have no contact with the public, but can have occasional interactions with coworkers and supervisors.

Id. at 38. Based on the resulting RFC, the ALJ then determined that Plaintiff was "unable to perform any past relevant work." Id. at 44. Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that, "[considering [Plaintiff]'s age. education, work experience, and [RFC], there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform." Id. at 45.

         Discussion

         Plaintiff raises four allegations of error on appeal: (1) that the ALJ failed to fully explain her decision with respect to the weight she gave to medical professionals;[3] (2) that the ALJ improperly determined that Plaintiffs IQ score was not a severe impairment; (3) that the ALJ failed to give the opinion of Plaintiffs treating physician controlling weight without presenting substantial contrary evidence; and (4) that substantial evidence did not support the ALJ's RFC determination. Each of Plaintiffs arguments lack merit and are addressed below.

         A. The ALJ Properly Conducted Herself During Step Four Of Her ...


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