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Virginia W. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 6, 2019

Virginia W.

          Stephen F. Shea, Esq. Elkind & Shea

          Amy C. Rigney, Esq. Special Assistant United States Attorney Social Security Administration

         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before this Court, by the parties' consent, are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 12, 14). The Court must uphold the Social Security Administration's (“SSA” or “Agency”) decision 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) (2016); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The substantial evidence rule “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. This Court shall not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the SSA. Id. Upon review of the pleadings and the record, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. Local Rule (“L.R.”) 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, I will deny both parties' motions, reverse the judgment in part, and remand for further consideration pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed a Title II Application for Disability Insurance Benefits on May 14, 2013, alleging that disability began March 14, 2013. (Tr. 15). This claim was initially denied on January 31, 2014, and upon reconsideration, denied again on June 5, 2014. (Tr. 88-90). Plaintiff's request for a hearing was granted and the hearing was conducted on May 6, 2016 by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 20). On August 3, 2016, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under §§ 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act and denied Plaintiff's claims. (Tr. 15). On June 20, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final and reviewable decision of the SSA. (Tr. 1-3). Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), Plaintiff has a right of further review after the ALJ's decision becomes final and thus, filed her claim in this Court. (ECF No. 1).


         The Social Security Act defines disability 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). An individual is deemed to have a disability if their “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 significant numbers in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         To determine whether a person has a disability, the ALJ engages in the five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 415.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); 416.920. See e.g., Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The steps used by the ALJ are as follows: step one, assesses whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date; step two, determine whether a claimant's impairments meet the severity and durations requirements found in the regulations; step three, ascertain whether a claimant's medical impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the regulations (“the Listings”). If the first three steps are not conclusive, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), i.e., the most a claimant could do despite their limitations, through consideration of Plaintiff's “‘medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware', including those not labeled severe at step two.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)). At step four, the ALJ analyzes whether a claimant could perform past work, given the limitations caused by her impairments; and at step five, the ALJ analyzes whether a claimant could perform any work. At steps one through four, it is the claimant's burden to show that they are disabled. See Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016). If the ALJ's evaluation moves to step five, the burden then shifts to the SSA to prove that a claimant has the ability to perform work and therefore, is not disabled. Id. at 180.

         Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, asthma, and fibromyalgia. (Tr. 17). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC:

to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that she is limited to lifting and carrying up to 20lbs. occasionally and up to 10lbs. frequently; she can stand or walk for approximately six hours in an eight hour workday; she can sit for approximately six hours in an eight hour work day; she requires normal breaks; she can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can occasionally balance or stoop; she can frequently kneel, crouch, or crawl; she must avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, and humidity; she must avoid moderate exposure to irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, and gases; and she must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected machinery and unprotected heights.

(Tr. 18). Following the testimony of the vocational expert (“VE”), and based on Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ presented hypotheticals that mirrored Plaintiff's impairments and concluded that Plaintiff had the ability to perform her past work as an administrative assistant and scheduler; therefore, Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 20).

         The issue before this Court is not whether the Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589; 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). On appeal Plaintiff raises two arguments. Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ failed to set forth sufficient narrative to support his conclusion regarding her RFC. (ECF No. 12-1 at 5). Second, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's subjective complaints. (Id. at 6). Defendant counters that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the SSA's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 14-1 at 1).

         III. ...

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