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Rhonda H v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 30, 2019

Rhonda H.
Social Security Administration[1]


         Dear Counsel:

         On October 2, 2018, Plaintiff petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Disability Insurance benefits and Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, (ECF Nos. 12, 13), and find no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). This Court must uphold the decision of the Agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and correct legal standards were employed. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); see Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Plaintiff's motion, grant Defendant's motion, and affirm the underlying judgement pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Plaintiff filed a claim for benefits on May 13, 2013, alleging disability beginning on September 1, 2010. (Tr. 17). Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration following appeal. (Tr. 200-04, 211-14). Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William H. Hauser held a hearing on April 7, 2015. (Tr. 37-77). On August 17, 2015, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 102-17). The Appeals Council remanded, and a second hearing was held on October 25, 2017 before ALJ Donald K. Neely. (Tr. 78-123, 196-98). A second unfavorable decision was issued on January 31, 2018. (Tr. 14-29). The Appeals Council denied her second request for review, making the January 31, 2018 decision the final reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr. 1-5).

         In arriving at the decision to deny Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation of disability set forth in the Secretary's regulations. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. “To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). If the first three steps do not yield a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), “which is ‘the most' the claimant ‘can still do despite' physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work, ” by considering all of the claimant's medically determinable impairments regardless of severity. Id. at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)). The claimant bears the burden of proof through the first four steps of the sequential evaluation. If he makes the requisite showing, the burden shifts to the Social Security Administration at step five to prove “that the claimant can perform other work that ‘exists in significant numbers in the national economy,' considering the claimant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and work experience.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 862 (4th Cir. 2017) (internal citations omitted).

         In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since September 1, 2010. (Tr. 19). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's “obesity; shingles in remission with ongoing symptoms of neuralgia; vestibular schwannoma labyrinthitis; hearing loss; tinnitus; depression; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); anxiety disorder; and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)” constitute severe impairments under the relevant regulations. (Tr. 19-20). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of any of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 20-22). Then, “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, ” the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform:

sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except that she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds and only occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, stop, kneel, crouch and crawl. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving only simple, work-related decisions with few, if any, workplace changes. She can perform work involving only occasional interaction with the public, coworkers and supervisors. She can perform work in a moderate noise setting, meaning free of loud noises and consistent with a typical office environment.

(Tr. 22-27). Finally, at step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work, but considering her age, education, experience, RFC, and the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), “there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant could have performed.” (Tr. 28-29).

         The Court reviews an ALJ's decision to ensure that the ALJ's findings are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of correct legal standards. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” which “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). In accordance with this standard, the Court does not “undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal citations and quotations omitted). Instead, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id.

         Plaintiff raises numerous arguments on appeal. The Court has divided her arguments into the following: (1) that the ALJ erred in evaluating Listings 12.04, 12.06, “and/or 12.11”, (ECF No. 12-1 at 9-11); (2) that the ALJ erred in discounting Plaintiff's subjective assertions and other symptoms, (Id. at 12-17); (3) that the ALJ's RFC assessment runs afoul of Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015), (Id. at 18); (4) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinions and other evidence, (Id. at 13-14, 19-20); and (5) that the ALJ presented an improper hypothetical to the VE and relied upon testimony inconsistent with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, (Id. at 20-24). For the reasons discussed below, each argument is meritless.

         The Listings

         First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ should have found that she met the criteria of Listings 12.04, 12.06 and/or 12.11. (Id. at 10). Listings 12.00 et seq. pertain to mental impairments. Specifically, listing 12.04 concerns depressive disorders, 12.06 concerns anxiety disorders, and 12.11 concerns neurodevelopmental disorders (such as ADHD). 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00 (2017). The claimant bears the burden of demonstrating that her impairment meets or medically equals a listed impairment. Kellough v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1147, 1152 (4th Cir. 1986).

         Each listing consist of: (1) “paragraph A criteria, ” which consist of a set of medical findings; and (2) “paragraph B criteria, ” which consist of a set of impairment-related functional limitations. Id. §§ 12.00(A), (G). Listings 12.04 and 12.06 further include a “paragraph C criteria, ” which relate to “serious and persistent” disorders lasting at least two years with a history of ongoing medical treatment and marginal adjustment. Id. A claimant's impairments meet the listings relevant to this case by satisfying either the paragraph A and paragraph B criteria, or the paragraph A and paragraph C criteria (not available to the 12.11 listing). Id. at § 12.00(A). To satisfy paragraph B of the mental impairment listings, a claimant must exhibit either “marked” limitations in two of the first three functional areas, or “marked” limitation in one of the first three areas, with repeated episodes of decompensation. See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.04(B). To satisfy paragraph C, a claimant must show that the disorder in the listing category is serious, persisted over a period of at least two years, was treated during that time period, and that the claimant has a “minimal capacity to adapt to changes” in their environment or new demands that are not already part of their daily lives. Id. at § (C).

         In this case, the ALJ applied the special technique for evaluation of mental health claims, using a five-point scale to rate a claimant's degree of limitation in the first three functional areas: none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(4), 416.920a(c)(4). The ALJ then made determinations and cited to evidence from the record to explain his conclusions that Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in “interacting with others, ” “concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace, ” and “managing [herself.]” (Tr. 20-22). The ALJ also considered the “paragraph C” criteria and found that the record did not establish a minimal capacity to adapt to changes in her environment or to new demands. In suggesting that the ALJ's determinations were erroneous, Plaintiff points to large swaths of the record, without any pinpoint cites to particular evidence revealing a greater level of limitation. (ECF No. 12-1 at 10-11). In essence, Plaintiff's arguments simply seek a reweighing of the evidence, which is not within the purview of this Court. See Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (noting that the Court's role is to assess whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's conclusion). Accordingly, I find no error at step three.

         Credibility and ...

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