United States District Court, D. Maryland
COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Stephanie A. Gallagher United States Magistrate Judge.
to Standing Order 2014-01, the above-captioned case has been
referred to me to review the parties' dispositive motions
and to make recommendations pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §
636(b)(1)(B) and Local Rule 301.5(b)(ix). I have considered
the parties' cross-dispositive motions. ECF 16, 21. I
find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6
(D. Md. 2018). This Court must uphold the decision of the
Social Security Administration (“SSA”) if it is
supported by substantial evidence and if the SSA employed
proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th
Cir. 1987). For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that
both motions be denied, that the SSA's decision be
reversed in part, and that the case be remanded to the SSA
for further analysis.
protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance
Benefits (“DIB”) on June 6, 2014, alleging a
disability onset date of December 2, 2013. Tr. 178-79. Her
application was denied initially on December 17, 2014, and on
reconsideration on March 10, 2016. Tr. 104-07, 112-13. An
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing
on April 13, 2017, at which Plaintiff was represented by
counsel. Tr. 31-78. Following the hearing, the ALJ determined
that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the
Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. Tr.
11-24. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for
review, Tr. 1-5, so the ALJ's decision constitutes the
final, reviewable decision of the SSA.
found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of
“coronary artery disease (CAD), degenerative disc
disease (DDD) of the cervical and lumbar spines,
osteoarthritis of the right thumb, and obesity.” Tr.
13. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that
Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a)
except the claimant can occasionally lift and carry ten
pounds; frequently lift and carry five pounds; stand and walk
for no more than two hours in an eight hour workday with
normal breaks; sit for six hours in an eight hour workday
with normal breaks; can never climb ladders, ropes and
scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can
occasionally crawl, stoop, kneel, balance, and crouch; should
avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected
heights and dangerous machinery; and can frequently handle
and finger with the right upper extremity.
Tr. 18. After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff
could perform her past relevant work as a lawyer, and,
alternatively, could perform other jobs existing in
significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 22-24.
Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not
disabled. Tr. 24.
disagrees, and cursorily raises a series of arguments on
appeal relating to the ALJ's evaluation of her subjective
complaints, the assignment of weight to her treating
physicians, and the treatment of her upper arm and hand
impairments. Although many of Plaintiff's arguments
lack merit, I concur that the ALJ failed to support his
conclusion regarding Plaintiff's upper extremity
impairments with substantial evidence. See Hancock v.
Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (noting that
the Court must uphold findings “if they are supported
by substantial evidence and were reached through application
of the correct legal standard.”). Accordingly, I
recommend that the case be remanded to the SSA for additional
explanation. In so recommending, I express no opinion as to
whether the SSA's ultimate decision that Plaintiff was
not entitled to benefits was correct.
with the unsuccessful arguments, Plaintiff first contends
that the ALJ found her complaints “not credible based
largely on opinions rendered by physicians from the year 2014
(ALJ 16-17)”. ECF 16-1 at 6. The cited pages do not
explicitly reference medical opinions from 2014. Tr. 16-17.
Plaintiff may be referencing the ALJ's step two analysis
of Plaintiff's mental impairments, in which the ALJ
assigned “substantial weight” to the opinion of
the State mental health consultant rendered in 2014 at the
initial level of consideration. Tr. 16. However, the ALJ
provided a thorough analysis of the evidence regarding
Plaintiff's mental impairments at step two, and explained
how the record evidence supported the consultant's
opinion. Tr. 14-17.
Plaintiff cites to some particular medical findings, and
suggests that the ALJ failed to consider them. ECF 16-1 at
6-7. While an ALJ is required to consider all of a
claimant's medical conditions, “there is no rigid
requirement that the ALJ specifically refer to every piece of
evidence in his decision.” Reid v. Comm'r of
Soc. Sec., 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting
Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir.
2005) (per curiam)).
further argues that the ALJ assigned inadequate weight to
opinions rendered by two treating and examining physicians:
Drs. Tellefsen and Molinaro. ECF 16-1 at 7. Though Plaintiff
suggests that the ALJ discounted each physician's opinion
based solely on his or her area of specialty, in fact the ALJ
cited to other factors, including the absence of supporting
treatment notes, in assigning “little weight” to
those two opinions. Tr. 15.
I concur with Plaintiff's general contention that the
ALJ's conclusion that she “can frequently handle
and finger with the right upper extremity, ” Tr. 18, is
not supported by substantial evidence. The ALJ concluded,
“The claimant can shop, do laundry and cook which are
consistent with her limitation to frequent handling and
fingering (Exhibit 20F/3-4).” Tr. 22. In fact, the
cited exhibit expresses the exact opposite, noting that
Plaintiff's “Current Functional Limitations”
include “shopping, laundry, cooking.” Tr. 720.
The Commissioner intimates that the list might have been
intended to show Plaintiff's functional abilities instead
of her limitations, ECF 21-1 at 6, but that interpretation is
simply not supported by the plain language of the form. Tr.
720. The Commissioner further contends that the ALJ also
relied on other pieces of evidence in his opinion. ECF 21-1
at 6-7. However, as to the finding that Plaintiff was capable
of frequent handling and fingering, the misread exhibit is
the only exhibit cited by the ALJ. Tr. 22.
also cites other hand-related evidence from her treating
physician, Dr. Schwartz, that the ALJ did not expressly
address. ECF 16-1 at 8 (“The Judge failed to consider
limitations and restrictions given by Dr. Schwartz -
‘[s]he is advised to avoid prolonged and/or repetitive
elbow flexion and compression. Maintain neutral . . . wrist
position.'”); id. (“The Judge failed
to consider upper arm and hand findings that would negatively
impact all jobs at the sedentary level, including ulnar nerve
findings and loss of strength upon clinical
examination.”). The ALJ did discuss the specific
medical record Plaintiff cites to, Tr. 19, 20-21, however,
the ALJ failed to address the impressions, diagnoses, and
recommendations that Dr. Schwartz made in that record, or to
offer any analysis regarding how Dr. Schwartz's
conclusions can be reconciled with the RFC. While, again, an
ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of evidence in his
opinion, in light of the lack of accurate factual support for
the conclusion that Plaintiff was capable of frequent
handling and fingering, the failure to discuss Dr.
Schwartz's conclusions takes on greater
significance. Ultimately, in light of the medical
evidence of record and the factual errors in the ALJ's
analysis, the ALJ has not provided a sufficient explanation
to permit this Court to conclude that the ALJ's opinion
that Plaintiff can engage in frequent handling and fingering
rests on substantial evidence. I therefore recommend remand
for additional explanation.
reasons set forth above, I ...