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Lakeisha J. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 5, 2019

Lakeisha J.
v.
Saul [1]

          Stephen F. Shea, Esq., Kathleen C. Buckner, Esq. Special Assistant United States Attorney

          Honorable Gina L. Simms United States Magistrate Judge

         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before this Court are cross-motions for summary judgment (ECF Nos. 14, 15). The Court must uphold the Social Security Administration (“SSA” or “the Agency”)'s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence, and if the Agency employed proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) (2016); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The substantial evidence rule “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Chater, 76 F.3d at 589. This Court shall not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the SSA. Id. Upon review of the pleadings and the record, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, both Motions are DENIED and the SSA's judgment is remanded for further consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income Benefits (“SSI”) on February 27, 2014, initially alleging an onset of disability on March 14, 2012. (Tr. 14). Plaintiff's application was denied initially on July 17, 2014, and upon reconsideration on January 28, 2015, by the SSA. (Id.). On February 24, 2015, Plaintiff requested a hearing, which was conducted on April 18, 2017 before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).[2](Id.). On July 6, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act, (the “Act”) during the relevant time frame which was February 27, 2014 to July 6, 2017.[3] (Tr. 11-25). On April 27, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final and reviewable decision of the SSA. (Tr. 1-6).

         II. ANALYSIS PERFORMED BY THE ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGE

         The Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual is deemed to have a disability if her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work . . . which exists in significant numbers in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         To determine whether a person has a disability, the ALJ engages in the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 415.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); 416.920. See e.g., Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The steps used by the ALJ are as follows: step one, assesses whether a claimant engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date; step two, determine whether a claimant's impairments meet the severity and durations requirements found in the regulations; step three, ascertain whether a claimant's medical impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the regulations (the “Listings”). If the first three steps are not conclusive, the ALJ assesses the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), i.e., the most the claimant could do despite her limitations, through consideration of claimant's “‘medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware', including those not labeled severe at step two.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)). At step four, the ALJ analyzes whether a claimant could perform past work, given the limitations caused by her impairments; and at step five, the ALJ analyzes whether a claimant could perform any work. At steps one through four, it is the claimant's burden to show that he or she is disabled. See Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016). If the ALJ's evaluation moves to step five, the burden then shifts to the SSA to prove that a claimant has the ability to perform work and, therefore, is not disabled. Id. at 180.

         Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, obesity, anxiety, and depression. (Tr. 16). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to:

perform light work . . . except with the following nonexertional limitations: occasionally climbing ramps or stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; never climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; carrying out simple to moderately complex tasks in 2-hour increments with 10- to 15-minute breaks in-between; having occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors, but no direct interaction with the general public; and adapting to simple changes in a routine work setting.

(Tr. 18).

         At the hearing, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified that a hypothetical individual with the same age, education, and work experience as Plaintiff and with her RFC could not perform her previous work. (Tr. 51-52). The VE testified that the hypothetical person could not perform her previous work as an office administrator and property manager because they were skilled positions. (Tr. 52). Next, the VE was asked whether a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's RFC, limited to a sedentary exertional capacity, could perform any job. (Tr. 53). The VE responded, “yes.” (Id.). When asked by the ALJ whether any jobs are available if the hypothetical person was “off task” 20 percent of an eight-hour day, the VE responded, “no.” (Tr. 54). Plaintiff's attorney inquired about the hypothetical person being “off task” 15 percent, to which the VE testified that a person “off task” for “more than 10 percent” would be precluded from competitive employment. (Id.). The ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff could perform several jobs existing in the national economy; therefore, Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 23-24).

         III. ...


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