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Antwaun W. v. Commissioner, Social Security

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 22, 2018




         Pursuant to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-referenced case has been referred to me for review of the parties' dispositive motions, [ECF Nos. 15, 16], 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, including a reply memorandum filed by Plaintiff, [ECF No. 20], 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 Plaintiff's motion, grant the SSA's motion, and affirm the SSA's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         Plaintiff filed his claim for Supplemental Security Income on October 15, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of September 24, 2012. (Tr. 248-53). His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 146-49, 155-57). After one postponement to allow time to seek representation, Plaintiff had a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on June 21, 2016. (Tr. 47-120). Following the hearing, the ALJ issued a written opinion in which he determined that Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during a portion of the relevant time frame, but then experienced medical improvement. (Tr. 11-34). On October 24, 2017, the Appeals Council declined review, making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the SSA. (Tr. 1-7). Plaintiff filed the instant suit seeking review of that decision on December 22, 2017. [ECF No. 1].

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff was under a disability from his application date through June 30, 2014, and awarded benefits for that time frame. (Tr. 15-26). As to the period starting July 1, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 15). The ALJ further concluded that Plaintiff suffered from the same severe impairments he had suffered prior to that date, including “panhypopituitarism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); learning disorder; depression; and, anxiety.” (Tr. 15, 26). Despite the fact that Plaintiff continued to have the same severe impairments, the ALJ determined that, as a result of medical improvement as of July 1, 2014, Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) after that date to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) with the following additional limitations. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs. He can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can have no exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. He can frequently, bilaterally use both hand and foot controls. He can have frequent interaction with supervisors and coworkers and occasional interaction with the public. He is able to understand, remember, and carry out simple routine instructions or tasks, or detailed but uninvolved instructions or tasks, free of fast-paced or team-dependent production requirements, involving simple work-related decisions and occasional, if any, work place changes. He would be off task a maximum of five percent of the workday in addition to normal workday breaks (fifteen minutes in the morning, thirty minutes at lunch, and fifteen minutes in the afternoon), provided that this time off task would not be in one continuous block but would be spread out over the course of the workday averaging three minutes per hour.

(Tr. 28). After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform several jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and that, therefore, he was not disabled. (Tr. 32-34).

         I have 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.

         The ALJ proceeded in accordance with applicable law at all relevant steps of the sequential evaluation, as they pertain to a finding involving medical improvement. The ALJ ruled in Plaintiff's favor at step one and determined that, despite some part-time employment, he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 15); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(i).

         At the next step, the ALJ determined that medical improvement had occurred since Plaintiff's period of disability. (Tr. 27); 20 C.F.R. § 416.994(b)(5)(ii). Specifically, the ALJ cited Plaintiff's bone age evaluation on June 30, 3014, which reflected “significant bone growth over the past two years based on comparison to a prior study.”[2] (Tr. 27). The ALJ noted that the 2015 and 2016 physical examinations in the record “were almost wholly unremarkable.” Id. As for Plaintiff's mental impairments, the ALJ noted that after 2013, “his treatment notes indicate that he denied depressed mood or suicidal ideations, restarted his Concerta, and was not seeing a psychiatrist . . . . No specific mental functioning complaints are reflected in his records after 2013.” Id.

         The ALJ also found that the medical improvement had affected Plaintiff's ability to work “because there has been an increase in the claimant's residual functional capacity.” Id. Specifically, the ALJ found that the improvements both in Plaintiff's physical development and bone age and the reduced concerns and treatment for his mental health symptoms “reduced the amount of time he would be off task.” Id. The ALJ relied, in part, on Plaintiff's testimony that he would have been able to work full-time at Giant had a position been available, and that he had applied for full-time fast-food jobs. Id.

         Next, the ALJ considered the severity of the impairments that Plaintiff claimed prevented him from working, and found each impairment to be severe. (Tr. 15-17, 26); see 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The ALJ further determined that Plaintiff's severe impairments did not meet, or medically equal, the criteria of any listings. (Tr. 17-18, 26-27). Without specifically identifying any particular listing, the ALJ applied the special technique for the evaluation of mental disorders, and evaluated the four functional areas relevant to the mental health listings which constitute the “paragraph B” criteria. (Tr. 17-18); see 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00 (2016). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had mild restriction in his activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace. (Tr. 17-18). The ALJ also found no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (Tr. 18). The ALJ further found that Plaintiff did not meet the “paragraph C” criteria which are included under certain listings. (Tr. 18), see, e.g., 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404 Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.04 (2016). The ALJ supported those assessments with citations to the evidence of record. (Tr. 17-18). Under the mental health listings, a claimant would generally need to meet the paragraph B criteria by showing two areas of marked difficulty, or one area of marked difficulty and repeated episodes of decompensation. See 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(A) (2016). Under certain listings, the listing can be met by satisfying the paragraph C criteria, rather than the paragraph B criteria. Id. Accordingly, the ALJ did not err by concluding that the mental health listings were not met, because Plaintiff satisfied neither the paragraph B nor paragraph C criteria.

         In considering Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ summarized his subjective complaints from his testimony at his hearing, along with the testimony provided by his family members. (Tr. 22-23, 29). The ALJ then engaged in a detailed and extensive review of Plaintiff's daily activities and medical records, beginning July 1, 2014. (Tr. 29-32). The ALJ cited Plaintiff's testimony that he can lift 50 pounds, complete chores at home, cook small meals for his brother, do his own laundry, and work at Giant cutting and organizing fruit and maintaining the salad bar. (Tr. 29). Plaintiff also testified that his only difficulty following instructions occurred when he was not taking his prescribed ADHD medications. (Tr. 30).

         The ALJ also assessed and made assignments of weight to the medical opinions in the record. (Tr. 30). In particular, the ALJ noted that there are no medical source statements indicating that the claimant was disabled after June 30, 2014, or suggesting any restrictions to his functional capacity during that time frame. (Tr. 30). The ALJ also thoroughly discussed his assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints, and identified the evidence in the record undermining those assertions. (Tr. 30-31). Finally, the ALJ explained his finding regarding Plaintiff's “time off task, ” tying the conclusion to specific medical evidence after July 1, 2014. (Tr. 31).

         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. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971). Even if there is other evidence that may support Plaintiff'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 ...

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