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Sherah F. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

June 27, 2019

SHERAH F., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant.



         Sherah F. (“Plaintiff”) brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's claim for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act and for Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Plaintiff's Motion”), ECF No. 17, and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Commissioner's Motion”), ECF No. 18. The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and the applicable law. No. hearing is deemed necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby DENIES Plaintiff's Motion, DENIES Commissioner's Motion, and REVERSES and REMANDS the Administrative Law Judge's decision pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. A separate order will issue.

         I. Procedural Background

         On May 1, 2015, Plaintiff filed for DIB under Title II. R. 15, 76, 196-202. On May 5, 2015, Plaintiff filed for SSI under Title XVI. R. 15, 65, 203-11. For both claims, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning April 10, 2015. R. 15, 65, 76. Plaintiff later requested a “closed period of disability” from April 10, 2015 to January 17, 2017. R. 15, 35. Plaintiff alleged disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”) and high blood pressure. R. 65, 76. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on November 17, 2015, R. 15, 65-86, and upon reconsideration on April 7, 2016, R. 15, 91-118, 127-30. On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. R. 15, 133-32. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on May 24, 2017. R. 15-27. On June 9, 2017, the ALJ denied both of Plaintiff's claims. R. 15-27. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which concluded on April 24, 2018, that there was no basis for granting Plaintiff's Request for Review. R. 1-6. Plaintiff appealed that decision by filing the instant proceeding on June 27, 2018. ECF No. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         On appeal, the Court has the power to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) “with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2019). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. Id. (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”); see also Russell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 440 Fed.Appx. 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). “In other words, if the ALJ has done his or her job correctly and supported the decision reached with substantial evidence, this Court cannot overturn the decision, even if it would have reached a contrary result on the same evidence.” Schoofield v. Barnhart, 220 F.Supp.2d 512, 515 (D. Md. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla.” Russell, 440 Fed.Appx. at 164. “It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see also Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted) (“It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.”).

         The Court does not review the evidence presented below de novo, nor does the Court “determine the weight of the evidence” or “substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citations omitted); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972) (“[T]he language of § [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court uphold the Secretary's decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by ‘substantial evidence.'”). The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citations omitted). If the ALJ's factual finding, however, “was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law, ” then that finding is not binding on the Court. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).

         The Commissioner shall find a person legally disabled under Title II and Title XVI if he is unable “to do 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.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505(a), 416.905(a) (2012). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a claimant meets this definition:

1) Determine whether the plaintiff is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i) (2012). If she is doing such activity, she is not disabled. If she is not doing such activity, proceed to step two.
2) Determine whether the plaintiff has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § [404.1509/416.909], or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii) (2012). If she does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, she is not disabled. If she does meet these requirements, proceed to step three.
3) Determine whether the plaintiff has an impairment that “meets or equals one of [the C.F.R.'s] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii) (2012). If she does have such impairment, she is disabled. If she does not, proceed to step four.
4) Determine whether the plaintiff retains the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv) (2012). If she can perform such work, she is not disabled. If she cannot, proceed to step five.
5) Determine whether the plaintiff can perform other work, considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v) (2012). If she can perform other work, she is not disabled. If she cannot, she is disabled.

         Plaintiff has the burden to prove that she is disabled at steps one through four, and Commissioner has the burden to prove that Plaintiff is not disabled at step five. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992).

         The RFC is an assessment that represents the most a claimant can still do despite any physical and mental limitations on a “regular and continuing basis.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(b)-(c), 416.945(b)-(c). In making this assessment, the ALJ must consider all relevant evidence of the claimant's impairments and any related symptoms. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a). The ALJ must present a “narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g. laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g. daily activities, observations), ” and must then “explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were considered and resolved.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). “Ultimately, it is the duty of the [ALJ] reviewing the case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts of evidence.” Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979)).

         III. Analysis

         In this matter, the ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claim using the five-step sequential evaluation process. R. 15-27. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity between March 2017 to the date of the decision. R. 17. However, the ALJ found that “there has been a continuous 12-month period(s) during which [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity.” R. 17. Accordingly, the ALJ's findings addressed those periods of time. R. 17. At step two, under 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].” R. 18. The ALJ stated that the listed impairments were severe because they “constitute more than slight abnormalities and have had more than a minimal effect on the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities for a continuous period of 12 months.” R. 18. The ALJ also noted that Plaintiff suffered from “hypertension and obesity” but found them to be “non-severe impairments because they do not even minimally affect [Plaintiff's] abilit y to carry out basic, work-related activities.” R. 18. In step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace. R. 19. Ultimately, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have “an impairment or a combination of impairments that [met] or medically equal[ed] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925 and 416.926).” R. 18. At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC “to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, ” but included a number of “non-exertional limitations”:

She is capable of performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a work setting with occasional decision-making and occasional changes in the work setting. She should not work in an environment with fast pace requirements or high production quotas. She can have occasional or superficial interaction with co-workers and supervisors, but no contact with the public.

R. 20. The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work. R. 20. Relying on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ concluded that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” R. 25. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claims for DIB and SSI were denied. R. 27.

         On appeal, Plaintiff requests that the Court grant summary judgment in her favor or, in the alternative, remand this matter to the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) for a new administrative hearing. Pl.'s Mem. 12-13. For the reasons set forth below, the Court REVERSES the ALJ's decision and REMANDS the matter for further proceedings.

         A. The ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's degree of functional limitation in concentration, ...

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