United States District Court, D. Maryland
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;
January 11, 2018, Plaintiff Brenda C. petitioned this Court
to review the Social Security Administration's
(“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claims
for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security
Income. ECF 1. I have considered the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment, and Plaintiff's
reply. ECF 15, 18, 19. I find that no hearing is necessary.
See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). This Court must
uphold the decision of the SSA if it is supported by
substantial evidence and if the SSA 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 both motions,
reverse the judgment of the SSA, and remand the case to the
SSA for further analysis pursuant to sentence four of 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.
filed her current claims for benefits in June 2014, alleging
an onset date of May 6, 2013. Tr. 173-82. Her claims
were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 104-11,
114-17. A hearing was held on November 9, 2016, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 27-57.
Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was
not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
during the relevant time frame. Tr. 11-21. The Appeals
Council declined review, Tr. 1-5, making the ALJ's
opinion the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.
found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of
“affective disorders (mood, depression and bipolar);
and anxiety.” Tr. 13. Despite these impairments, the
ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but
with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant
can perform simple, routine tasks, but not a production pace.
The claimant can also only occasionally tolerate changes in
workplace settings. She is further limited to making simple
work-related decisions and limited to communicating simple
information. In addition, the claimant can occasionally
interact with supervisors and co-workers, and can never
interact with the public.
Tr. 15-16. After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform
her past relevant work, but could perform other jobs existing
in the national economy, specifically the positions of stock
clerk, laundry worker, and hand packager. Tr. 20-21.
Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled.
appeal, Plaintiff primarily argues that the ALJ erred in
evaluating the opinion of the consultative examiner, Dr.
Kenneth Fligsten. I agree, and therefore remand this case to
the SSA pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
are required to consider medical opinions in the case record,
and apply a set of factors in assigning weight to medical
opinions. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927. When
explaining how the opinion evidence was considered, the ALJ
has a duty to “build an accurate and logical bridge
from the evidence to his conclusion.” Lewis v.
Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 868 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting
Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir.
the ALJ assigned “[g]reat weight” to Dr.
Fligsten's report because it was “generally
consistent with the record as a whole, which indicates mental
examinations were generally normal . . . [and] Dr.
Fligsten's opinion is supported by the claimant's
ability to independently care for her personal needs, as is
discussed above.” Tr. 19. Dr. Fligsten simply did not
say that. In contrast, Dr. Fligsten opined that Plaintiff had
reduced abilities to relate healthily, sustain concentration,
function independently, maintain pace, and tolerate and adapt
to stresses and demands, and noted Plaintiff's increased
risk of deterioration or decompensation under stress. Tr.
324. He also opined that Plaintiff “may have difficulty
managing her benefits healthily, ” and described her
prognosis as “guarded.” Tr. 324, 325.
failed to explain how the limitations indicated by Dr.
Fligsten were consistent with the conclusion that
“mental examinations were generally normal, ” and
supported by Plaintiff's “ability to independently
care for her personal needs.” Tr. 19. The SSA defends
the ALJ's analysis by arguing that Dr. Fligsten's
opinion was “generally very ambiguous” and did
not indicate the severity of Plaintiff's limitations. ECF
18-1 at 4. However, this Court can only assess the ALJ's
opinion based on the record before it, and the ALJ did not
provide a clear and logical explanation in analyzing Dr.
also argues that the ALJ's assignment of great weight to
both Dr. Fligsten's opinion and the “State agency
opinions”, Tr. 19, was inconsistent, because Dr.
Fligsten's opinion was more restrictive than the DDS
findings. ECF 15-1 at 13-14; Tr. 65, 75-76, 88, 99. However,
the psychological consultant portion of those decisions
claims the findings are consistent with Dr. Fligsten's
opinion. Tr. 65, 75, 87, 98. Regardless of how those
decisions can be internally reconciled, without more
explanation from the ALJ, I am unable to determine if the
ALJ's findings were supported by substantial evidence.
reasons set forth above, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment, ECF 15, is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for
Summary Judgment, ECF 18, is DENIED. Pursuant to sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the SSA's judgment is
REVERSED IN PART due to inadequate analysis. The case is
REMANDED for further proceedings in accordance with this
opinion. The Clerk is directed to CLOSE this case.
the informal nature of this letter, it should be flagged as