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Renee G. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 9, 2019

Renee G.
v.
Andrew M. Saul, Commissioner of Social Security[1]

         Dear Counsel:

         On January 4, 2019, Plaintiff Renee G.[2] petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's final decision to deny her claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”). (ECF No. 1.) The parties have filed cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 11 & 12.) These motions have been referred to the undersigned with the parties' consent pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636 and Local Rule 301.[3] Having considered the submissions of the parties, I find that no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. This Court must uphold the decision of the agency if it is supported by substantial evidence and if the agency employed the proper legal standards. 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). Following its review, this Court may affirm, modify, or reverse the Commissioner, with or without a remand. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Melkonyan v. Sullivan, 501 U.S. 89 (1991). Under that standard, I will grant the Commissioner's motion and deny the Plaintiff's motion. This letter explains my rationale.

         In her applications for SSI and DIB, Renee G. alleged a disability onset date of April 1, 2014. (Tr. 16.) Her applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Id.) A hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) on May 23, 2017 (Tr. 28-50), and the ALJ found that Renee G. was not disabled under the Social Security Act (Tr. 16-23). The Appeals Council denied Renee G.'s request for review (Tr. 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the agency.

         The ALJ evaluated Renee G.'s claim for benefits using the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At step one, the ALJ found that Renee G. had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2014, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 18.) At step two, the ALJ found that Renee G. suffered from the following severe impairments: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), status-post nephrectomy. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found Renee G.'s impairments, separately and in combination, failed to meet or equal in severity any listed impairment as set forth in 20 C.F.R., Chapter III, Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1 (“Listings”). (Tr. 20.) The ALJ determined that Renee G. retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she can interact with the public, supervisors, coworkers, and peers frequently.” (Id.)

         At step four, the ALJ determined that Renee G. can perform past relevant work as a billing clerk. (Tr. 22.) Because the ALJ found that Renee G. could perform past relevant work, the ALJ concluded that she was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 22-23.)

         Renee G. raises two arguments in this appeal. First, she argues that “[n]either the ALJ nor the [vocational expert] proved that [Renee G.] could perform her past relevant work as a processing clerk for a life insurance company.” (ECF No. 11-1 at 6-9.) Second, she argues that the “ALJ's finding on [Renee G.'s] mental impairment is internally inconsistent. (Id. at 9-10.) Neither of these arguments have merit.

         Renee G. first argues that the ALJ erroneously found that she was capable of performing past relevant work. At step four, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has performed past relevant work, what the work consisted of, and whether the claimant retains the RFC to continue performing the past relevant work. In making this determination, the ALJ is required to follow the three-step analysis outlined in Social Security Ruling 82-62. SSR 82-62, 1982 WL 31386, at *4 (1982). ALJs are permitted to rely on the testimony of vocational experts to determine whether a person with the claimant's RFC could perform the claimant's past relevant work. See, e.g., Wilson v. Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1054 (4th Cir. 1980)

         Here, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”). The VE testified that Renee G. was a “billing clerk in insurance companies” for her entire career. (Tr. 41.) The VE testified that Renee G.'s past relevant work as a billing clerk corresponded with Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) number 214.382-014, which lists the position at the sedentary exertional level and classifies it at the SVP 4, semiskilled level. (Id.) The VE's testimony regarding the substance of DOT number 214.382-014 (“Billing Typist”) matches the information listed in the DOT for this position.

         The ALJ found that the “physical and mental demands” of Renee G.'s past work did not exceed her RFC. (Tr. 22.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Renee G. could her perform past relevant work. (Id.)

         Renee G. argues that, for several reasons, the ALJ should not have concluded that she could perform her past relevant work. First, she argues that the ALJ never asked her if she could perform the work. But there is no requirement that an ALJ ask a claimant whether they believe they are capable of performing past relevant work, let alone a requirement that an ALJ credit their testimony on this point.

         Second, she argues that her treating psychiatrist, Dr. Hsu, found that she was incapable of performing any work and that the ALJ should have accepted this opinion. ALJs must “evaluate every medical opinion” presented to them, “regardless of its source.” Id. With regard to the medical opinions of treating physicians, the regulations provide:

If we find that a treating source's medical opinion on the issue(s) of the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s) is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, we will give it controlling weight.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2). If a treating source's medical opinion is not assigned controlling weight, an ALJ must consider several factors in determining the weight to give the opinion: (1) the length of the treatment relationship, including its nature and extent; (2) the supportability of the opinion; (3) the opinion's consistency with the record as a whole; (4) whether the source is a specialist; and (5) any other factors that tend to support or contradict the opinion. Id. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c).

         An ALJ is permitted to give little weight to the opinion of a treating physician if there is persuasive contrary evidence, see Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992), but the ALJ must discuss any contrary evidence with specificity so that a reviewing court can conduct a meaningful review. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 191. Here, the ALJ did just that. The ALJ properly gave little weight to Dr. Hsu's opinion. (Tr. 22.) The ALJ found that Dr. Hsu's opinion (that Renee G. had marked and extreme limitations in social functioning and concentration, persistence, and pace) was inconsistent with ...


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