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Francis O. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 4, 2019

Francis O.



         Dear Counsel:

         On December 4, 2018, Francis O (“Plaintiff) petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) final decision to deny his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (ECF No. 1). I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 17 and 18), and Plaintiff's response thereto. (ECF No. 19). 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, DENY Defendant's Motion, and the decision of the Commissioner shall be VACATED and REMANDED for further consideration, in accordance with sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter explains my rationale.

         Plaintiff protectively filed his application for DIB and SSI on February 14, 2012, alleging an onset date of January 27, 2012. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on April 3, 2012, and again on reconsideration. (Tr. 191-205). On September 25, 2012, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Id. at 206. This hearing was held on March 26, 2014 before ALJ Tom Duann. On May 7, 2014, ALJ Duann rendered his decision and denied Plaintiff's claims. Plaintiff then requested review of ALJ Duann's decision on June 16, 2014. Id. at 244-47. On August 25, 2015, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request, and subsequently issued an Order vacating the decision and remanding the case to an ALJ. Id. at 184-87. On remand, the ALJ was to: (1) give further consideration to the claimant's maximum residual functional capacity (“RFC”), provide an adequate evaluation of the treating source opinion, explain the weight given to such opinion evidence; and (2) obtain supplemental evidence from a vocational expert in order to correlate the assessed limitations on Plaintiff's occupational base and the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff was capable of performing the requirements of occupations such as electronic inspector (despite that such required occasional to constant reaching in all directions).[1] Id.

         On November 20, 2017, ALJ Penca presided over the administrative hearing. Following the hearing, ALJ Penca issued an unfavorable decision on December 4, 2017. (Tr. 18). Plaintiff once again requested review, and after the Appeals Council denied this request on October 9, 2018, ALJ Penca's decision became the final and reviewable decision of the SSA. (Tr. 11).

         In arriving at his decision to deny Plaintiff's claims, 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 “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 January 27, 2012, the alleged date of onset. (Tr. 15). At step two, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period, Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical, thoracic, and lumbar spine. (Tr. 15). 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. 15). Then, “[a]fter careful consideration of the entire record, ” the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:

[P]erform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 419.967(b) except who can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but never ladders, ropes or scaffolds; who can occasionally balance, stop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and who can have exposure to extreme cold, vibration, and hazards.

(Tr. 16).

         Finally, at steps four and five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work, but based on the testimony of the vocational expert, and consideration of Plaintiff's age, education, experience, and RFC, plaintiff is capable of “making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” Id. at 20. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time frame. Id.

         Plaintiff makes two primary arguments on appeal: (1) the ALJ failed to properly evaluate his fibromyalgia diagnosis from the Veterans' Administration (“VA”) in accordance with the procedures outlined in SSR 12-2p; and (2) the ALJ's RFC determination was unsupported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 18). These contentions are addressed in turn.

         Disability Rating

         Plaintiff contends that remand is warranted because the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the Plaintiff's forty (40) percent disability rating by the Veterans' Administration (“VA”), which established fibromyalgia as a medically terminable impairment, citing Bird v. Commissioner of Social Security Administration, 699 F.3d 337, 343 (4th Cir. 2012). This Court Agrees. In this Circuit:

In making a disability determination, the SSA must give substantial weight to a VA disability rating. However, because the SSA employs its own standards for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability, and because the effective date of coverage for a claimant's disability under the two programs likely will vary, an ALJ may give less weight to a VA disability ...

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