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Patrick M. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 18, 2019

Patrick M.
v.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration

         LETTER TO COUNSEL

         Dear Counsel:

         On October 2, 2018, Patrick M (“Plaintiff”) petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 9 and 12). 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 Government's motion, and affirm the Social Security Administration's judgment pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Plaintiff protectively filed his claims for benefits on August 13, 2014, alleging an onset date of February 13, 2014. (ECF No. 8-3 at 11). The claim was denied initially on January 13, 2015. Id. A hearing was held on July 21, 2017, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Jesus Ortis. (Tr. 46-79). 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. 18). The Appeals Council declined review (Tr. 1-6), and consequently the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         In arriving at his 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).

         In this case, at step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 13, 2014. (Tr.12). At step two, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease, knee impairment, and obesity.” (Tr. 12). At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 13). Then, “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, ” the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except: the claimant can climb ramps and stairs occasionally, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and never crawl; the claimant can never work at unprotected heights, and never around moving mechanical parts.

(Tr. 13).

         Finally, at steps four and five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but in considering age, education, experience, and RFC, “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform.” (Tr. 16-17). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 18).

         The 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 quotation marks 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.

         Plaintiff makes two primary arguments on appeal, that the ALJ erroneously assessed Plaintiff's: (1) RFC; and (2) subjective symptoms. (ECF No. 9-1).

         RFC ASSESSMENT

         In support of the contention that the ALJ erroneously assessed his RFC, Plaintiff asserts two sub-claims. (ECF No. 9-1 at 3-11). These claims are that the ALJ: (1) failed to include a narrative discussion setting forth a function-by-function analysis of Plaintiff's ability to perform work-related activities (Id. at 4-7); (2) erroneously evaluated the opinions of the State Agency physician, Plaintiff's treating physician, and the consultative examiner, who evaluated the Plaintiff's claim on behalf of the Commissioner. Id. at 8-9.

         First, Plaintiff contends that under Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), the ALJ failed to provide a function-by-function analysis to explain the RFC determination with regard to Plaintiff's physical and mental impairments. (ECF No. 9-1 at 4). Social Security regulations require an ALJ to “identify the [claimant's] functional limitations or restrictions and assess his . . . work related abilities on a function-by-function basis.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636. To satisfy this requirement, the ALJ must include a “narrative discussion of the ...


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