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Donja H. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 1, 2019

Donja H.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

         Dear Plaintiff and Counsel:

         On February 8, 2019, Plaintiff Donja H., who appears pro se, petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income. ECF 1. I have considered the parties' cross motions for summary judgment, and the medical record Plaintiff filed in response.[1] ECF 13, 14, 16. 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 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 filed her claim for benefits on March 24, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of January 1, 2015. Tr. 184-85. Her claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 77-87, 109-12. An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on July 12, 2017, at which Plaintiff was represented by counsel. Tr. 44-76. Following that hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. Tr. 30-43. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. 1-7, so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of “obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, status post lumbar decompression and fusion surgery; degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees; type II diabetes mellitus; hypothyroidism; chronic pain syndrome; depressive disorder; and panic disorder.” Tr. 32. Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except the claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; cannot kneel, crouch, or balance; can frequently handle, reach, and finger; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; can occasionally stoop; can have no exposure to extreme cold, vibrations, or hazards, such as unprotected heights; cannot use foot controls; can perform simple routine tasks; can apply common sense understanding to carry out detailed, uninvolved instructions; cannot perform production rate work where each job task must be completed in set time periods; is limited to making simple work related decisions with only occasional changes in routine work setting; and time off task during the work day can be accommodated by normal work breaks.

Tr. 36. After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, and, accordingly, that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 42-43.

         I have carefully reviewed the ALJ's opinion and the entire record. See Elam v. Barnhart, 386 F.Supp.2d 746, 753 (E.D. Tex. 2005) (mapping an analytical framework for judicial review of a pro se action challenging an adverse administrative decision, including: (1) examining whether the SSA's decision generally comports with regulations, (2) reviewing the ALJ's critical findings for compliance with the law, and (3) determining from the evidentiary record whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings). For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and supported her conclusions with substantial evidence.

         The ALJ proceeded in accordance with applicable law, using the appropriate sequential evaluation. The ALJ found in Plaintiff's favor at step one, that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her application date.[2] Tr. 32. At step two, the ALJ then considered the severity of each of the impairments that Plaintiff claimed prevented her from working. See Tr. 32-33; 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(ii). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff's hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and sinus tachycardia were not severe impairments because they were “adequately controlled with prescription medications” and “[did] not cause more than a minimal effect on the claimant's ability to perform basic work-related activities.” Tr. 33. Regardless, after finding several of Plaintiff's other impairments to be severe, Tr. 32, the ALJ continued with the sequential evaluation and considered, in assessing Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the extent to which her impairments limited her ability to work.

         At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the criteria of any listings. Tr. 33-35. In particular, the ALJ identified and considered Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 1.04 (disorders of the spine), 12.04 (depressive, bipolar, and related disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders). The ALJ also considered the following Social Security Rulings (“SSR”) for Plaintiff's impairments which are not including in the listings: SSR 14-2p (diabetes), SSR 03-2p (chronic pain syndrome), SSR 14-3p (hypothyroidism), and SSR 02-01p (obesity).

         With respect to Listing 1.02, the ALJ explained that Plaintiff's impairment did not result in ineffective ambulation, defined as “having insufficient leg functioning to permit independent ambulation without the use of a hand-held assistive device that limits functioning of both arms.” Tr. 33. The ALJ noted Plaintiff's occasional use of a cane, but found that Plaintiff was “able to perform her personal care, prepare meals, and to feed herself.” Id. The ALJ also explained that Plaintiff's impairment did not meet any of the prongs under Listing 1.04 because (A) the record did not show nerve root compression, (B) the record did not show spinal arachnoiditis, and (C) Plaintiff was able to ambulate effectively. Tr. 33-34. The ALJ additionally determined that the non-listings impairments of diabetes, chronic pain syndrome, hypothyroidism, and obesity, alone or in combination with the other impairments, did not have effects that met the criteria of any listing. Tr. 34.

         With respect to the two mental health listings, the ALJ engaged in the special technique for evaluation of mental impairments, but found no more than a moderate limitation in each of the four relevant functional areas. Tr. 34-35. The ALJ employs the “special technique” to rate a claimant's degree of limitation in each functional area, based on the extent to which the claimant's impairment “interferes with [the claimant's] ability to function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a sustained basis.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(2). The ALJ uses a five-point scale to rate a claimant's degree of limitation in the four areas: none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme. Id. § 416.920a(c)(4). In order to satisfy the “paragraph B criteria”, a claimant must exhibit either “marked” limitations in two of the four areas, or “extreme” limitation in one of the four areas. 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 § 12.00(A)(2)(b). Here, with no findings of marked limitation in any area, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not satisfy the “paragraph B criteria.” The ALJ also found that Plaintiff did not meet the “paragraph C criteria” of the mental health listings, which require “serious and persistent” disorders lasting at least two years with a history of ongoing medical treatment and marginal adjustment. Id. § 12.00 (G). I have carefully reviewed the record, and I agree that no listings are met in this case.

         In considering Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ determined that her “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms, ” but found that Plaintiff's testimony as to the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms was “only partially consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” Tr. 39; see Chater, 76 F.3d at 594 (explaining the Fourth Circuit's two-part test for evaluating a claimant's subjective complaints).

         The ALJ's analysis relied upon Plaintiff's own reports to contradict her allegations of her symptoms' severity. Tr. 37 (noting that Plaintiff reported to her physician in August 2015 that she was much better after her spinal surgery); id. (noting that Plaintiff reported again in November 2015 that her symptoms had improved since her surgery); id. (noting that Plaintiff reported in June 2016 that her primary concern was her knees, and not her back); Tr. 38 (noting that Plaintiff reported in August and November 2016 that she reported great results from her knee treatment).

         The ALJ reviewed the medical evidence and noted that, among other findings, Plaintiff's pain was controlled with medication. Tr. 37; see, e.g., Tr. 610 (“[Plaintiff] has decreased her opioid medication significantly.”). Despite writing that she experienced “some pain relief with surgery” in her SSA function report, Tr. 252, Plaintiff denied experiencing improvement after her surgery at the hearing, Tr. 58-60. The ALJ also noted that, although Plaintiff used a cane at times, “she also did not use a cane at times” and “generally exhibited a normal gait.” Tr. 38. For support, the ALJ cited to medical records from SMART Pain Management which show that Plaintiff routinely exhibited a “normal gait, no limp, ” and “amubulat[ed] with no assistive devices.” See, e.g., Tr. 657, 663, 667, 671. Plaintiff testified that she used a cane “98 percent of the time.” Tr. 62. In response to ...

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