United States District Court, D. Maryland
David Copperthite, United States Magistrate Judge.
April 16, 2018, Vicky H. ("Plaintiff) petitioned this
Court to review the Social Security Administration's
("SSA") final decision to deny her claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and
Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). See
ECF No. 1 ("the Complaint"). After consideration of
the Complaint, the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment (ECF Nos. 16, 17), and the response thereto (ECF No.
18), the Court finds that no hearing is necessary.
See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). In addition, for the
reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 16) and Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment (ECF No. 17) are DENIED, the decision of the SSA is
REVERSED IN PART, and the case is REMANDED to the SSA for
further analysis in accordance with this opinion.
March 19, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for
DIB, alleging disability beginning on August 18, 2013.
Plaintiff also filed a Title XVI application for SSI on March
25, 2014, alleging disability beginning on August 18, 2013.
Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on
August 6, 2014 and October 30, 2014, respectively.
Subsequently, on November 5, 2014, Plaintiff filed a written
request for a hearing and, on February 27, 2017, an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") presided over a
hearing. On April 26, 2017, the ALJ rendered a decision
ruling that Plaintiff "ha[d] not been under a
disability, as defined in the Social Security Act [(the
"Act")], from August 18, 2013, through the date of
this decision." ECF No. 10-3 at 40. Thereafter,
Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's disability
determination and, on February 20, 2018, the Appeals Council
denied Plaintiffs request for review. Thus, the decision
rendered by the ALJ became the final decision of the SSA.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481 (2018); see also
Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07 (2000).
April 16, 2018, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court
seeking judicial review of the SSA's denial of her
disability application. On December 11, 2018, Plaintiff filed
a Motion for Summary Judgment, and Defendant filed a Motion
for Summary Judgment on February 8, 2019. On February 21,
2019, Plaintiff responded to Defendant's
motion. This matter is now fully briefed and the
Court has reviewed both parties' motions.
Court is authorized to review the [SSA]'s denial of
benefits under 42 U.S.C.A. § 405(g)." Johnson
v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per
curiam) (citation omitted). The Court, however, does not
conduct a de novo review of the evidence. Instead,
the Court's review of an SSA decision is deferential, as
"[t]he findings of the [SSA] as to any fact, if
supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive, . .
." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Smith v.
Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996) ("The duty
to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not
with a reviewing court."); Smith v. Schweiker,
795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986) ("We do not conduct a
de novo review of the evidence, and the [SSA] 's
finding of non-disability is to be upheld, even if the court
disagrees, so long as it is supported by substantial
evidence." (citations omitted)). Therefore, the issue
before the reviewing court is not whether the plaintiff is
disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that the
plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial
evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of
the relevant law. Brown v. Comm 'r Soc. Sec.
Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 267 (4th Cir. 2017) ("[A]
reviewing court must uphold the [disability] determination
when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the
ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial
evidence." (citation and internal quotation marks
evidence is that which a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate to support a conclusion. It consists of more than a
mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a
preponderance." Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d
204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal citations and quotation
marks omitted). "In reviewing for substantial evidence,
we do not undertake to reweigh 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."
Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012)
(internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Therefore,
in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry,
the court shall determine whether the ALJ has considered all
relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight
accorded to that evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v.
Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).
Determinations and Burden of Proof
order to be eligible for DIB and SSI, a claimant must
establish that she is under disability within the meaning of
the Act. The term "disability," for purposes of the
Act, is defined 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),
1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a),
416.905(a). A claimant shall be determined to be under
disability where "h[er] physical or mental impairment or
impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only
unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering
h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any
other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the
national economy[.]" 42 U.S.C. §§
determining whether a claimant has a
disability within the meaning of the Act, the ALJ, acting on
behalf of the SSA, follows the five-step evaluation process
outlined in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Mascio v.
Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The
evaluation process is sequential, meaning that "[i]f at
any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be
made, the SSA will not review the claim further."
Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24 (2003);
see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
one, the ALJ considers the claimant's work activity to
determine if the claimant is engaged in "substantial
gainful activity." 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). If the claimant is
engaged in "substantial gainful activity," then the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(i), 404.1520(b), 416.920(a)(4)(i), 416.920(b).
two, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has a
"severe medically determinable physical or mental
impairment [or combination of impairments] that meets the
duration requirement[.]" 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). If the claimant does
not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments
meeting the durational requirement of twelve months, then the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 404.1520(c), 416.909, 416.920(a)(4)(ii),
three, the ALJ considers whether the claimant's
impairments, either individually or in combination, meet or
medically equal one of the presumptively disabling
impairments listed in the Code of Federal Regulations. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii).
If the impairment meets or equals one of the listed
impairments, then the claimant is considered disabled,
regardless of the claimant's age, education, and work
experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford
v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).
to advancing to step four of the sequential evaluation, the
ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional
capacity ("RFC"), which is then used at the fourth
and fifth steps of the analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(e), 416.920(e). RFC is an assessment of an
individual's ability to do sustained work-related
physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular
and continuing basis. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at * 1 (July
2, 1996). The ALJ must consider even those impairments that
are not "severe." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(2).
determining RFC, the ALJ evaluates the claimant's
subjective symptoms (e.g., allegations of pain) using a
two-part test. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 594
(4th Cir. 1996); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. First, the ALJ
must determine whether objective evidence shows the existence
of a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to
produce the actual alleged symptoms. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529(b). Once the claimant makes that threshold showing,
the ALJ must evaluate the extent to which the symptoms limit
the claimant's capacity to work. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1529(c)(1). At this second stage, the ALJ must consider
all of the available evidence, including medical history,
objective medical evidence, and statements by the claimant.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c). The ALJ must assess the
credibility of the claimant's statements, as symptoms can
sometimes manifest at a greater level of severity of
impairment than is shown by solely objective medical
evidence. SSR 16-3p, 2017 WL 5180304, at *2-13 (Oct. 25,
2017). To assess credibility, the ALJ should consider factors
such as the claimant's daily activities, treatments she
has received for her symptoms, medications, and any other
factors contributing to functional limitations. Id.
four, the ALJ considers whether the claimant has the ability
to perform past relevant work based on the determined RFC. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). If
the claimant can still perform past relevant work, then the
claimant is not disabled. 20 CF, R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1520(f), 416.920(a)(4)(iv),
the claimant is unable to resume past relevant work, the ALJ
proceeds to the fifth and final step of the sequential
analysis. During steps one through four of the evaluation,
the claimant has the burden of proof. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920; see Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S.
137, 146 (1987); Radford, 734 F.3d at 291. At step
five, however, the burden of proof shifts to the ALJ to
prove: (1) that there is other work that the claimant can do,
given the claimant's age, education, work experience, and
RFC (as determined at step four), and; (2) that such
alternative work exists in significant numbers in the
national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
416.920(a)(4)(v); see Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-73;
Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 290 (4th Cir.
2002). If the claimant can perform other work that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy, then the
claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520(a)(4)(v), 404.1520(g)(1), 404.1560(c),
416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant cannot perform other work,
then the claimant is disabled. Id.
instant matter, with regard to Plaintiffs DIB claim, the ALJ
preliminarily found that Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements of Title II of the Act through September 30,
10-3 at 22. The ALJ then performed the sequential evaluation
and found at step one that Plaintiff "ha[d] not engaged
in substantial gainful activity since August 18, 2013, the
alleged onset date." Id. At step two, the ALJ
found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments;
degeneration of lumbar or lumbosacral invertebral disc,
lumbago, spinal stenosis of lumbar region without neurogenic
claudication, chronic pain syndrome, obesity, displacement of
cervical intervertebral disc without myelopathy, generalized
anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder
("PTSD"), major depressive disorder, allergic
rhinitis, reactive airway disease, chronic ...