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Kaitlin M. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 22, 2019

KAITLIN M., Plaintiff,
v.
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION,[1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          A. David Copperthite United States Magistrate Judge

         On January 31, 2018, Kaitlin M. ("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. 17, 21), and the response thereto (ECF No. 24), the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. See Loc.R. 105.6 (D.Md. 2018). In addition, for the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 17) and Defendant's Motion for .Summary Judgment (ECF No. 21) are DENIED, the decision of the SSA is REVERSED, and the case is REMANDED to the SSA for further analysis in accordance with this opinion.

         Procedural History

         On February 28, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for DIB and a Title XVI application for SSI, alleging disability beginning on November 22, 2013. Her claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration on August 11, 2014 and January 9, 2015, respectively. Subsequently, on January 29, 2015, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing and, on October 24, 2016, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") presided over a hearing. On December 16, 2016, 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 November 22, 2013, through the date of this decision." ECF No. 10 at 25. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed an appeal of the ALJ's disability determination and, on November 29, 2017, 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).

         On January 31, 2018, Plaintiff filed the Complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the SSA's denial of her disability application. On October 9, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Summary Judgment, and Defendant filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on January 23, 2019. On February 21, 2019, Plaintiff responded to Defendant's motion.[2] This matter is now fully briefed and the Court has reviewed both parties' motions.

         Standard of Review

         "This 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 omitted)).

         "Substantial 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).

         Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof

         In 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. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         In 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), 416.920(a)(4).

         At step 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)®, 416.920(b).

         At step 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), 416.920(c).

         At step 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. ...


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