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Grace v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

July 11, 2019

KIMBERLY G., Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant.


          Charles B. Day United States Magistrate Judge

         Kimberly G. (“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 Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) under Title XVI of the Social Security Act and granted Plaintiff's claim for a period of Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, but only beginning February 11, 2017. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Plaintiff's Motion”), ECF No. 13, and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Commissioner's Motion”), ECF No. 15. 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

         The matter before the Court is the second appeal on Plaintiff's claims. On September 17, 2012, Plaintiff filed claims for DIB under Title II and for SSI under Title XVI. R. 18, 68-83, 193-205. For both claims, Plaintiff alleged disability beginning March 30, 2011. R. 18, 412. Plaintiff alleged disability due to high blood pressure, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression and anxiety. R. 68, 76, 87. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on December 21, 2012, R. 18, 74, 82, and upon reconsideration on August 8, 2013, R. 18, 86- 110, 132-33. On August 12, 2013, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing. R. 18, 134-35. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 29, 2015. R. 18, 39. On April 7, 2015, the ALJ denied both of Plaintiff's claims. R. 15-33. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which concluded on May 24, 2016, that there was no basis for granting Plaintiff's Request for Review. R. 1-7. Plaintiff appealed that decision by filing a complaint with this Court on September 9, 2016. R. 412, 484-94. However, on June 12, 2017, Commissioner filed a consent motion seeking remand of the matter for further administrative proceedings and development. R. 498-500. The Court granted that motion and ordered the matter remanded for further proceedings. R. 412, 495, 498. Subsequently, the Appeals Council issued an order remanding the case to an ALJ for additional proceedings. R. 502-07. On March 15, 2018, a second administrative hearing was held before a different ALJ. R. 412, 434. On May 17, 2018, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was disabled but only beginning on February 11, 2017. R. 407-26. Accordingly, Plaintiff's claim for SSI was granted but her claim for DIB was denied. R. 426. Plaintiff appealed that decision by filing the instant proceeding on August 28, 2018. ECF No. 1.


         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). 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. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v) (2012). If sh e can perform other work, sh ...

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