United States District Court, D. Maryland
LETTER TO COUNSEL
September 11, 2017, Plaintiff Dana Payne petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claim
for disability benefits. [ECF No. 1]. I have considered the
parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. [ECF Nos.
14, 17]. I find that no hearing is necessary. See
Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This Court must uphold the
decision of the Agency 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);
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
Under that standard, I will deny Ms. Payne's motion,
grant the SSA's motion, and affirm the SSA's judgment
pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This
letter explains my rationale.
Payne filed a claim for Disability Insurance Benefits
(“DIB”) on November 12, 2014, alleging a
disability onset date of September 15, 2014. (Tr. 143-49).
Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr.
80-83, 87-88). A hearing was held on September 1, 2016,
before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr.
32-56). Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Payne was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 16-31). The
Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Ms. Payne's
request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so the ALJ's decision
constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Payne suffered from the severe impairments of
“osteoarthritis, hypertension, degenerative joint
disease, degenerative disc disease, and obesity.” (Tr.
21). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms.
Payne retained the residual functional capacity
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except
the claimant can frequently balance and handle, and
occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps or
stairs. She is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
She is to avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold,
vibration, loud noise, environmental irritants, and hazards
including dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. The
claimant requires the opportunity to sit momentarily after
remaining standing for between thirty and sixty minutes.
(Tr. 22). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms. Payne
could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the
national economy and that, therefore, she was not disabled.
support of her appeal, Ms. Payne advances three primary
arguments: (1) that the ALJ erred in considering her
subjective complaints of pain; (2) that the ALJ did not
provide an adequate explanation for imposing a sit/stand
option; and (3) that the ALJ did not evaluate the disabling
nature of her headaches. Each argument lacks merit for the
reasons discussed below.
Ms. Payne asserts that the ALJ relied only on the lack of
objective medical evidence to discredit her subjective
complaints of disabling pain. Pl. Mot. 4-7. However, in
contrast, the ALJ expressly stated, “In addition to the
objective evidence, I have considered a variety of factors in
evaluating the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects
of the claimant's symptoms.” (Tr. 24). The ALJ
proceeded to discuss the conservative nature of Ms.
Payne's medical treatment, the statements she had made to
her treating providers about her conditions, and her
“extensive range” of daily living activities in
support of the ALJ's conclusion. (Tr. 24). Ms. Payne
specifically contests the ALJ's assertion that she is
“a primary caregiver for her grandchild, ” and
that she is “able to care for her grandchild . . . with
little assistance.” Pl. Mot. 5-6; (Tr. 24). However,
the record is replete with evidence to support the ALJ's
description. See, e.g., (Tr. 207) (Ms. Payne's
report that she takes care of “my husband and grandson
. . . . My husband is not in good health.”); (Tr. 386)
(“She does feel fatigued though she still works on her
farm and is raising her grandson.”); (Tr. 437) (Ms.
Payne's statement that she does “care for her 5yo
grandson who lives with her”); (Tr. 450) (Ms.
Payne's assertion that she was “under [a]
tremendous amount of stress raising her grandchild”);
(Tr. 462) (Ms. Payne's assertion that she was
“taking care of her grandchild at home”).
Although Ms. Payne also contests the characterization of her
activities as “extensive, ” the ALJ appropriately
built an accurate and logical bridge between the evidence in
the record, suggesting that Ms. Payne cares for her small
grandchild and husband and maintains her home, and the
conclusion that Ms. Payne's subjective allegations of
disability do not entirely comport with the evidence. (Tr.
23-24). Ultimately, my review of the ALJ's decision is
confined to whether substantial evidence, in the record as it
was reviewed by the ALJ, supports the decision and whether
correct legal standards were applied. See Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). Even if there is
other evidence that may support Ms. Payne's position, I
am not permitted to reweigh the evidence or to substitute my
own judgment for that of the ALJ. See Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In
considering the entire record, and given the evidence
outlined above, I find the ALJ's evaluation of Ms.
Payne's subjective complaints was supported by
Ms. Payne posits that the ALJ's RFC determination did not
include an appropriate function-by-function analysis,
particularly as to her need to sit periodically throughout
the workday. Pl. Mot. 10-11. However, the ALJ expressly
explained that he believed the opinion of the State agency
physician, Dr. Lowen, had not adequately accounted for Ms.
Payne's complaints of persistent back pain and upper
extremity numbness. (Tr. 25). Accordingly, the ALJ imposed a
sit/stand option to allow for frequent positional changes, in
accordance with Ms. Payne's testimony that she
“requires positional changes throughout the day.”
Ms. Payne alleges that the ALJ did not adequately consider
her testimony that she suffers from regular and disabling
headaches. Pl. Mot. 11-13. Ms. Payne cited to four cases in
which this Court remanded the claims to the SSA, in part, for
failure to assess evidence of headaches. Id. In each
of those cases, however, migraine headaches had been
determined to be a severe impairment, and, in at least one
case, a treating doctor had corroborated that the plaintiff
suffered from three to four disabling headaches per month.
See Fetter v. Commissioner, Civil No. 15-2250-JMC,
2016 WL 3646850 (D. Md. July 7, 2016); Muir v.
Astrue, Civil No. SKG-11-2041, 2013 WL 140779 (D. Md.
Jan. 3, 2013); Laroche v. Berryhill, Civil No.
TMD-16-3214, 2018 WL 1243545 (D. Md. Mar. 9, 2018);
Thrower v. Colvin, No. 5:15-CV-00290-FL, 2016 WL
4734355 (E.D. N.C. June 23, 2016). In this case, in contrast,
headaches are not listed among Ms. Payne's severe
impairments, and migraines have not been diagnosed. The ALJ
did acknowledge Ms. Payne's testimony that she suffers
from regular headaches, (Tr. 23), but noted in the opinion
that she had indicated in 2014 “that her headaches
resolved spontaneously after several weeks.” (Tr. 24).
A review of the medical records does not reflect that
headaches of the type and frequency described in Ms.
Payne's testimony were ever raised with any of her
treating medical providers. Accordingly, I find no error in
the ALJ's evaluation of Ms. Payne's headaches, and
remand is unwarranted.
reasons set forth herein, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment, [ECF No. 14], is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment, [ECF No. 17], is GRANTED. The SSA's
judgment is AFFIRMED pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g). The Clerk is directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as
an opinion and docketed as an order.
STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER UNITED ...