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Myra C. v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 29, 2019

Myra C.
v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec.[1]

         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before this Court are cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 17, 18). The Court must uphold the Social Security Administration (“SSA” or “the Agency”)'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.” Chater, 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. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, I will deny the motions, reverse the Commissioner's decision in part, and remand the case to the Commissioner for further consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) on February 25, 2014, alleging an onset of disability on July 10, 2013. (Tr. 211, 218). Plaintiff's application was denied initially (March 24, 2014), and upon reconsideration (November 14, 2014), by the SSA. (Tr. 91-98). On January 5, 2015, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was conducted on July 5, 2016 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 11). At the hearing, Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to December 31, 2014. (Tr. 11). On August 3, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 11-25). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on August 20, 2017, making the ALJ's decision the final reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr.1-5).

         II. ANALYSIS PERFORMED BY THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE

         In deciding to deny Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process regarding disability, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. §416.920. See also Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The steps used by the ALJ were as follows: step one, assessed whether Plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date; step two, determined whether Plaintiff's impairments met the severity and durations requirements found in the regulations; step three, ascertained whether Plaintiff's medical impairment met or equaled an impairment listed in the regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (“the Listings”); step four, analyzed whether Plaintiff could perform her past work, given the limitations caused by her impairments; and at step five, analyzed whether Plaintiff could perform any work. (Tr. 31-40). Because the first three steps did not yield a conclusive determination, the ALJ also assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”)-i.e., the “most the claimant ‘c[ould] still do despite' physical and mental limitations that affect[ed] her ability to work”-by considering all of Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments, regardless of their severity. See Mascio, at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)). Per Mascio, Plaintiff bore the burden of proof through the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. Upon making the requisite showing, the burden shifted to the Agency at step five to prove that Plaintiff could perform other work that “exist[ed] in significant numbers in the national economy, ” in light of her “[RFC], age, education and work experience.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 862 (4thCir. 2017) (internal citations omitted).

         Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, sacroiliitis, facet arthropathy, osteoarthritis of the knees, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, and anxiety. (Tr. 14). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to:

Perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can only occasionally stoop and crouch, but never kneel or crawl. She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps, but never ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She can occasionally push and pull with the lower extremities. She is limited to simple, routine, repetitive work in an environment with few, if any, workplace changes and she can have occasional interaction with supervisors, coworkers, and incidental contact with the public, but not direct customer service. Beginning March 1, 2015, the claimant also needs a cane to ambulate.

(Tr.18). In addition, as explained more fully below in Section III, after evaluating the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform several jobs existing in the national economy; therefore, Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 24-25).

         III. DISCUSSION

         On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ committed several prejudicial errors that warrant a remand: (a) the ALJ's RFC assessment does not comport with the Fourth Circuit's mandates in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015), because it fails to adequately account for Plaintiff's limitations in concentration, persistence and pace; (b) the ALJ did not address how Plaintiff's social functioning limitations affected her ability to respond to others on a sustained basis; (c) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence; (d) the ALJ's RFC findings related to carpal tunnel syndrome and vision are not supported by substantial evidence; and (e) the ALJ erred by not evaluating the medical necessity of Plaintiff's use of a cane when standing. (ECF No. 17-1, pp. 10-25). The Agency has responded to each argument.

         I find that remand is appropriate, as set forth immediately below.

         First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiff had no more than moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence and pace. Specifically, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ so erred by: (a) ignoring evidence from Plaintiff's primary care provider, Dr. Jeffrey Shultz, that Plaintiff had difficulties with memory and concentration which caused her to be “off task” for at least 20% of each work day; and (b) finding that Plaintiff's treating therapist's act of not documenting Plaintiff's “decreased memory” meant that Plaintiff had no more than a moderate difficulty in concentration. (ECF No. 17-1, pp 11-12). According to the Plaintiff, then, by ignoring the treating providers' opinions, the ALJ “disregarded highly qualified medical sources in favor of her own non-medical opinion.” Id. Second, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ “failed to make an accurate and logical bridge” between Plaintiff's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace” and the RFC that the ALJ fashioned. Put another way, the ALJ did not adequately explain: (a) how Plaintiff's mental impairments only translated into a limitation of performing “simple routine repetitive tasks;” and (b) how such a limitation takes into account her ability to stay “on task” during an 8-hour day. (ECF No. 17-1, pp. 13-14).

         Urging against remand, the SSA argues that a “plain reading” of the ALJ's decision, demonstrates that her findings on Plaintiff's moderate difficulties in concentration are “not due to limitations in Plaintiff's persistence or ability to maintain attention over time, ” and that said findings clearly “document[t] the connection between the basis ...


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