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Deborah G. v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 7, 2019

Deborah G.
v.
Social Security Administration[1]

         Dear Counsel:

         On June 28, 2018, Plaintiff petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for disability insurance benefits. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, (ECF Nos. 16, 17), and Plaintiff's response. (ECF No. 18). I find that no hearing is necessary. Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). This Court must uphold the decision of the Agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and correct legal standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Plaintiff's motion, grant the Government's motion, and affirm the Social Security Administration's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Plaintiff filed a claim for benefits on August 12, 2014, alleging disability beginning on July 22, 2013. (Tr. 13, 206-09). Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration following appeal. (Tr. 132-35, 137-38). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Michael J. Kopicki held a hearing on February 28, 2017. (Tr. 46-88). Following that hearing, on May 3, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from her alleged onset date through her date last insured. (Tr. 10-25). The Appeals Council denied her request for review on May 7, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr. 1-6).

         In arriving at the decision to deny Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation of disability set forth in the Secretary's regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. “To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). If the first three steps do not yield a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), “which is ‘the most' the claimant ‘can still do despite' physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work, ” by considering all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments regardless of severity. Id. at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)). The claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four steps of the sequential evaluation. If he makes the requisite showing, the burden shifts to the Social Security Administration at step five to prove “that the claimant can perform other work that ‘exists in significant numbers in the national economy,' considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 862 (4th Cir. 2017) (internal citations omitted).

         In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” from July 22, 2013 through September 30, 2016. (Tr. 15). At step two, the ALJ determined that “through the date last insured, the claimant had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease (“DDD”) of the lumbar spine; degenerative joint disease (“DJD”) of the left knee; hypertension; and, carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”) . . . .” (Tr. 16-18). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff, through the date last insured, did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 19). Then, “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, ” the ALJ determined that Plaintiff, through the date last insured, had the RFC to perform:

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), such that she can lift or carry up to five pounds frequently and up to ten pounds occasionally; she can stand and/or walk for two out of eight hours; she can sit for six out of eight hours; she can frequently hand and finger, bilaterally; she requires work without repetitive movement requirements for her lower extremities; she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; she can occasionally kneel, crouch and crawl; she can frequently stop; she requires work without concentrated exposure to extreme cold, wetness, vibration, fumes, odors, dust, poor ventilation, and hazards such as dangers machinery and unprotected heights.

(Tr. 19-24). Finally, at step four, the ALJ determined that, through the date last insured, Plaintiff was capable of performing past work as a computer support analyst as generally performed in the national economy. (Tr. 24-25).

         The Court reviews an ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of correct legal standards. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” which “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). In accordance with this standard, the Court does not “undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Instead, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id.

         Plaintiff raises three arguments on appeal: (1) the ALJ improperly determined that Plaintiff's bilateral hand tremors and arthritis were non-severe; (2) that the ALJ's errors in Step 2 undermined the ALJ's RFC determination; and (3) that the ALJ erred at Step 4 in determining that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a computer support analyst. Each argument is addressed in turn.

         Severe Impairments

         First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to properly determine that her bilateral hand tremors and arthritis constituted severe impairments. An impairment is considered “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to work. See Conrad v. Commissioner, Civ. No. SAG-12-2290, 2013 WL 1664370, at *2 (D. Md. Apr. 16, 2013) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521(a)). The claimant bears the burden of proving that her impairment is severe. Id. (citing Johnson v. Astrue, Civ. No. PWG-10-3139, 2012 WL 203397, at *2 (D. Md. Jan. 23, 2012)). Furthermore, this Court does not ask whether all of the evidence of record supports the ALJ's finding that the claimant's impairments are non-severe. Instead, the only question before this Court is whether the ALJ's finding is supported by substantial evidence and was reached through correct application of relevant law. Specifically, “[i]n reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the [ALJ]. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (internal quotations and citations omitted).

         In this case, the ALJ, in light of the dearth of evidence produced, cited to substantial evidence of record to support his finding that Plaintiff's bilateral hand tremors constituted a non-severe impairment, including her own testimony concerning diagnosis and the examination of Joseph Savitt, M.D., Ph.D that noted the tremors were not present at rest and that the tremors seemed “too irregular for PD and too slow for ET or enhanced physiological tremor. (Tr. 16). The only evidence of record supporting a more severe impairment is that of Plaintiff herself and the portions of Dr. Savitt's examination cited within Plaintiff's response. Given that the burden was on Plaintiff to establish that an impairment is severe, the ALJ correctly determined that there was simply not enough evidence presented to deem the impairment severe.

         Similarly, the ALJ's determination as to Plaintiff's arthritis is supported by sufficient evidence. While Plaintiff attempts to utilize Dr. Leichtling's diagnosis on her alleged onset date, the ALJ correctly points out that the diagnosis begins and ends with “general back and joint aches.” (Tr. 16, 430). This, in conjunction with Plaintiff's own testimony, other reports, and prescriptions, are reasonably insufficient to prove severity, especially in light of the actual diagnosis of arthritis that could impact fingering not occurring until after her date last insured. (Tr. 16, 733). Without more, the ALJ cannot be expected to accurately hypothesize the impact and extent of an undiagnosed impairment.

         Furthermore, even if the Court were to determine that the ALJ erred in his evaluation, such error would be harmless. Plaintiff met the threshold showing that other impairments were severe, the ALJ continued with the sequential evaluation process and properly considered all of her impairments, both severe and non-severe, that impacted Plaintiff's ability to ...


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