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Jaclyn D. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 20, 2019

Jaclyn D.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

          STEPHANIE A. GALLAGHER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Dear Counsel:

         On July 6, 2018, Plaintiff petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claims for disability benefits. ECF 1. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and Plaintiff's Reply. ECF 14, 17, 20. I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). This Court must uphold the decision of the SSA if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the SSA employed proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Plaintiff's motion, grant the SSA's motion, and affirm the SSA's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Plaintiff protectively filed her claims for disability benefits on August 5, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 28, 2013. Tr. 321-28. Her claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 155-59, 162-65. A hearing was held on September 14, 2016, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 37-109. Following the hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. Tr. 13-26. The Appeals Council (“AC”) denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. 1-6, so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         The ALJ found that, during the relevant time frame, Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of:

depression; mood disorder; history of bipolar affective disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); cluster B personality traits; borderline personality disorder by history; narcissistic and histrionic traits; claimant-perceived adrenal insufficiency of unknown etiology; fibromyalgia by history; chronic fatigue syndrome by history; claimant-perceived celiac disease; possible “leaky gut” syndrome; history of gastritis and gastroduodenitis; irritable bowel syndrome (IBS); possible endocrine disorder; history of chronic candidiasis; and thyroid disorder by history.

         Tr. 15. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except unskilled work; no more than occasional interaction with co-workers, supervisors, and the general public; no more than frequent exposure to atmospheric irritants, such as dust, fumes, odors, and gases; no more than frequent exposure to temperature extremes, wetness, high humidity, exposed heights, and moving machinery.

         Tr. 17-18. After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that, during the relevant period, Plaintiff could not perform past relevant work, but could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 24-26. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 26.

         In support of her appeal, Plaintiff advances several general arguments with a great number of subparts: (1) that the ALJ erred at step two by declining to find multiple impairments to be severe, ECF 14-1 at 10-11; (2) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the listings, ECF 14-1 at 11-17; (3) that the ALJ erred in discounting Plaintiff's subjective assertions of disabling symptoms, ECF 14-1 at 17-26; (4) that the ALJ failed to conduct a function-by-function analysis, ECF 14-1 at 27-28; (5) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinions and other evidence, ECF 14-1 at 28-31; and (6) that the ALJ erred in evaluating the VE evidence, ECF 14-1 at 33-35. Each argument lacks merit for the reasons discussed below.

         First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ should have found additional impairments to be “severe.” ECF 14-1 at 10-11. An impairment is considered “severe” if it significantly limits the claimant's ability to do basic work activities. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1522; 416.922. The claimant bears the burden of proving that an impairment is severe. See Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). Here, the ALJ adequately considered the relevant impairments at step two. Tr. 15-16. The ALJ found roughly a dozen impairments to be nonsevere, because they were “stable with medication or do not require ongoing treatment.” Tr. 16. Plaintiff disagrees with the ALJ's finding that her allergic rhinitis, sinusitis, and fecal incontinence were nonsevere. The records that Plaintiff cites do little to nothing to support her position. The only substantive mention of fecal incontinence in the records that Plaintiff cites to is a single notation that she reported “alternating constipation and diarrhea with an episode of nocturnal fecal incontinence.” Tr. 997. While Plaintiff's rhinitis and sinusitis are mentioned more than a single time, the Court has not found anything in the records that allow Plaintiff to meet her burden that those impairments caused a significant limitation in her ability to perform work activities. Plaintiff cites to her testimony that she had to move out of an apartment, because it smelled of smoke and would “ignite all my candida symptoms.” Tr. 68-69. Plaintiff has not offered evidence that her rhinitis and sinusitis were involved in this incident. Furthermore, because Plaintiff made the threshold showing that her other impairments were severe, the ALJ continued with the sequential evaluation process and properly considered all impairments, both severe and nonsevere, that significantly impacted Plaintiff's ability to work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. Plaintiff has not offered evidence demonstrating that she required greater restrictions than the limitations the ALJ included in the RFC. Accordingly, even if the ALJ's failure to find her rhinitis, sinusitis, or fecal incontinence severe was error at all, it would be harmless.

         Second, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ should have found her to meet the criteria of multiple listings, including 5.08, 14.10, 12.04 and 12.06. ECF 14-1 at 11-17. The ALJ explained that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 5.08's requirement of documentation of body mass index (“BMI”) measurements of less than 17.50 calculated on at least two evaluations at least 60 days apart within a consecutive 6-month period. Tr. 16; see 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 5.08. The records that Plaintiff cites to refute that finding are from an October 11, 2013 examination, with attached laboratory results, Tr. 949-954, and a January 4, 2015 record of a phone appointment, Tr. 1087-1088. EFC 14-1 at 11. Those dates are not within a consecutive 6-month period. Plaintiff does not provide any legal authority for her apparent contention that a “denial must be vacated and awarded as a matter of law” when an ALJ cites to only some, but not all, exhibits identified in a representative's pre-hearing and post-hearing briefs. Id. (emphasis removed).

         Next, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 14.10, for Sjoegren's/Sjogren's syndrome, [1] because “she has not been diagnosed with Sjogren's syndrome.” Tr. 16. Plaintiff contends the ALJ should have found Plaintiff's impairments to medically equal the listing.[2] Under the regulations, the SSA may determine medical equivalence to a listing under three scenarios: (1) if a claimant has an impairment described in a listing but does not have all of the required findings or required severity of the findings; (2) if a claimant has an impairment not described in the listings, the SSA compares the findings with those for closely analogous listed impairments; or (3) if a claimant has a combination of impairments, no one of which meets a listing, the SSA will compare the findings with those for closely analogous listed impairments. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1526(b), 416.926(b). Plaintiff has not argued that she has Sjoegren's syndrome, that she has an impairment not described in the listings that is closely analogous to Sjoegren's syndrome, or that Sjoegren's syndrome is a closely analogous impairment to the combination of impairments she does have. Accordingly, there is no basis for remand on this issue.

         Plaintiff's final listing argument is that the ALJ erred in his assessment of the paragraph B criteria for Listings 12.04 and 12.06. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had no limitation in the functional area of understanding, remembering, or applying information, and moderate limitation in each of the three other functional areas. Tr. 17. Plaintiff argues the ALJ reached his findings “without even making specific references to any substantial evidence in the record, ” but then acknowledges that the ALJ cited notes from a consultative psychological examination, a function report by Plaintiff, and Plaintiff's testimony. ECF 14-1 at 14; Tr. 17. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ cited “inaccurate” records showing intact memory, without clearly explaining how they were inaccurate. ECF 14 at 15 (emphasis removed). Further, Plaintiff represents that she has had “various hospitalizations for suicidal ideations.”[3] ECF 20 at 5. The records that Plaintiff cites do not provide any direct support for that contention. The only hospital records included in the records Plaintiff cites are for an overdose of heroin in 2011, and 2013 hospitalization for dizziness and headaches. Tr. 528, 613. The ALJ's analysis of the ...


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