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Toller v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 2, 2018

CAROL B. TOLLER
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY[1]

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS

          Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge

         Pursuant 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-dispositive motions, and Ms. Toller's reply. [ECF Nos. 14, 15, 16]. 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 Agency 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 both motions be denied, that the SSA's decision be reversed in part, and that the case be remanded to the SSA for further analysis.

         Ms. Toller filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income in April, 2014, alleging a disability onset of April 22, 2014. (Tr. 222-34). Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 129-33, 142-45). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on November 3, 2016. (Tr. 37-76). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Toller was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 15-31). The Appeals Council denied Ms. Toller's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Toller suffered from the severe impairments of “left ankle dysfunction status-post surgeries, degenerative disc disease, and depression.” (Tr. 17). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Toller retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform a range of sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a), except occasional climbing stairs/ramps, stooping, kneeling, balancing, and crouching; never crawling or climbing ladders/ropes/scaffolds; avoiding even moderate exposure to hazards including dangerous moving machinery, uneven terrain, and unprotected heights; no pushing or pulling with the left lower extremity; and she can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, and have superficial contact with the public.

(Tr. 20). After considering testimony from a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Toller could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and that, therefore, she was not disabled. (Tr. 30).

         Ms. Toller raises a number of arguments on appeal, including: (1) that the ALJ did not adequately consider her edema and her resulting need to elevate her leg; (2) that the ALJ did not afford adequate weight to the opinions of her treating physicians; and (3) that the ALJ's opinion goes against broad considerations of public policy, thus warranting remand under 20 C.F.R. § 404.970(a)(4). Pl. Mot. 7-18. Although not all of Ms. Toller's arguments are meritorious, I concur that the ALJ did not adequately analyze Ms. Toller's edema and need to elevate her leg during the workday, particularly considering the opinion of her longtime treating physician, Dr. Pabla. I therefore recommend remand. In so recommending, I express no opinion as to whether the ALJ's ultimate conclusion that Ms. Toller is not entitled to benefits is correct.

         In this case, Ms. Toller claimed, in part, that she was disabled as a result of edema and swelling in her left ankle. Her longtime treating physician, Dr. Pabla, completed a residual functional capacity form in 2014 detailing their treating relationship, and opining that Ms. Toller was unable to stand or sit upright for six to eight hours due to “pain, swelling, ” and that she would need to lie down “as needed to elevate” her left leg. (Tr. 386-91). Pursuant to the regulations:

Because symptoms, such as pain, are subjective and difficult to quantify, any symptom-related functional limitations and restrictions that your medical sources or nonmedical sources report, which can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, will be taken into account as explained in [20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(4) and § 416.929(c)(4)] in reaching a conclusion as to whether you are disabled.

§§ 404.1529(c)(3), 416.929(c)(3). The Fourth Circuit has further summarized that:

[T]reating physicians are given “more weight . . . since these sources are likely to be the medical professionals most able to provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of your medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone[.]” [20 C.F.R.] §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). “When the treating source has seen you a number of times and long enough to have obtained a longitudinal picture of your impairment, we will give the medical source's medical opinion more weight than we would give it if it were from a nontreating source.” Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)(i), 416.927(c)(2)(i). Accordingly, the ALJ is required to give “controlling weight” to opinions proffered by a claimant's treating physicians so long as the opinion is “well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the claimant's] case record[.]” Id. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2).

Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 867 (4th Cir. 2017).

         In this case, the ALJ summarized Dr. Pabla's opinion form. (Tr. 25). Following the summary, the ALJ provided the following analysis:

The undersigned notes that, while Dr. Pabla is a treating physician with a longitudinal treatment relationship with the claimant, his opinion is not entirely supported by the objective clinical findings over time. Nonetheless, the undersigned agrees with limiting the claimant to modified sedentary work, with additional non-exertional limitations as described in the above residual functional capacity, which ...

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