United States District Court, D. Maryland
Social Security Administration
LETTER TO ALL COUNSEL OF RECORD
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.