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Sunil M. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

March 6, 2019

Sunil M.

          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, 13). The Court must uphold the Social Security Administration (“SSA”)'s 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 SSA's decision 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 August 23, 2014, alleging an onset disability date of March 20, 2013.[2] (Tr. 22). This claim was initially denied on January 8, 2015, and upon reconsideration, denied again on April 29, 2015. (Id.). Plaintiff's request for a hearing was granted and the hearing was conducted on March 20, 2017, by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 30). On June 21, 2017, 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. 30). On November 27, 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 the 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.

         The issue before this Court is not whether the Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589; 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff advances two arguments alleging that the ALJ erred. Plaintiff first avers that the ALJ failed to set forth sufficient narrative to support his conclusion. (ECF No. 12-1 at 3-7). Second, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate Plaintiff's subjective complaints. (Id. at 7-10). 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. 13).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in performing the “function-by-function assessment” in determining her RFC because the ALJ failed to “set forth a narrative discussion setting forth how the evidence supported each conclusion” including “citing to specific medical facts and nonmedical evidence.” (ECF No. 12-1, at 5-6).

         When assessing a claimant's RFC, the law requires an ALJ to consider all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments, including any medically determinable impairments that are not “severe.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a)(2). The ALJ considers any inconsistencies in the evidence and the extent to which there are any conflicts between a claimant's statements and the rest of the evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(4). An ALJ will determine if a claimant's symptoms will diminish his or her capacity for basic work activities, subject to them being consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. Id. An ALJ's RFC determination should include a “narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion citing specific medical facts . . . and nonmedical evidence.” Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (July 2, 1996). The Fourth Circuit has recently held that a “proper RFC analysis has three components: (1) evidence, (2) logical explanation, and (3) conclusion. The second component, the ALJ's logical explanation, is just as important as the other two.” Thomas v. Berryhill, F.3d, 2019 WL 193948, at *3 (4th Cir. Feb. 22, 2019). See also Petry v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. 16-464, 2017 WL 680379, at *2 (D. Md. Feb. 21, 2017) (ALJ should build “an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.”).

         Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: sleep apnea, uncomplicated diabetes mellitus, mild osteoarthritis, valvular heart disease, lumbago and hypertension. (Tr. 24). Recognizing those ...

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