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Troy B. v. Commissioner, Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 6, 2019

Troy B.
Commissioner, Social Security Administration;

          Deborah L. Boardman United States Magistrate Judge

         Dear Counsel:

         On February 4, 2019, Plaintiff Troy B. petitioned this Court to review the Social Security Administration's (“SSA's”) final decision to deny his claim for Disability Insurance Benefits. ECF 1. I have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF 11, 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 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.

         After a previous denial, Plaintiff filed his claim for benefits on November 26, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 30, 2013. Tr. 366-67. Plaintiff's Date Last Insured (“DLI”) is December 31, 2014, so he had to establish disability on or before that date to qualify for benefits. Tr. 36. His claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. Tr. 287-90, 295-96. A hearing was held on October 11, 2017, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). Tr. 53-90. 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. 33-45. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, Tr. 1-9, so the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable decision of the SSA.

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the severe impairments of “Degenerative Disc Disease of the Lumbar Spine Status-post Surgeries, Degenerative Joint Disease/Osteoarthritis of the Bilateral Knees Status-post Surgeries, Right Shoulder Rotator Cuff Tendinitis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depressive Disorder and Anxiety Disorder.” Tr. 36. 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 no climbing of ladders/scaffolds, kneeling or crawling; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, stooping, crouching, and balancing; no use of foot controls; occasional reaching overhead with right upper extremity and no exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine tasks but can apply commonsense understanding to carry out detailed but uninvolved instructions; no production rate work where each job task must be completed within strict time periods; the claimant is limited to making simple work related decisions with only occasional changes in the routine work setting; occasional interaction with the public and time off task during the workday can be accommodated by normal breaks.

         Tr. 39. After considering the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a personal trainer but could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Tr. 43-45. Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 45.

         Plaintiff raises three primary arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ erred at step three in analyzing whether Plaintiff's impairments met or medically equaled Listing 1.04A; (2) that the VE's testimony was flawed and the ALJ failed to resolve conflicts between the DOT and the VE's testimony; and (3) that the ALJ erred in his treatment of the prior ALJ's decision. ECF 11-1 at 6-11. Each argument lacks merit for the reasons discussed below.

         I. ALJ's Evaluation of Listing 1.04

         Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's evaluation of Listing 1.04A. ECF 11-1 at 6-7. To satisfy Listing 1.04A, a claimant must show that his disorder of the spine results in a compromise of the nerve root or the spinal cord, as well as:

[e]vidence of nerve root compression characterized by [1] neuro-anatomic distribution of pain, [2] limitation of motion of the spine, [3] motor loss (atrophy with associated muscle weakness or muscle weakness) accompanied by sensory or reflex loss and, if there is involvement of the lower back, [4] positive straight-leg raising test (sitting and supine)[.]

20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1, § 1.04A. Plaintiff contends that neither the State agency consultants nor the ALJ considered all of the medical evidence when evaluating his impairments under Listing 1.04A. This argument is without merit.

         First, Plaintiff's argument that the State agency non-examining consultants did not consider medical evidence received after February of 2014, including Plaintiff's September 2014 back surgery, ECF 11-1 at 7, is inaccurate. While the determination at the initial level was made on April 5, 2014, before Plaintiff's September 2014 surgery, Tr. 262, the reconsideration report identifies evidence received through December 30, 2015, and expressly states “claimant underwent surgery for back (09/02/2014), ” Tr. 270.

         Second, Plaintiff argues that “[m]uch of the criteria of Listing 1.04A was documented after the [September 2014 surgery], ” and that “[t]he ALJ did not address any of these findings.” ECF 11-1 at 7. Plaintiff cites to evidence of reduced range of motion, a positive straight leg test, reduced sensation, reduced strength, and motor loss from after September 2014. Id. (citing Tr. 855, 857, 916, 1100, 1103, 1107, 1140, 1146, 1158). However, the ALJ specifically referenced medical evidence from after Plaintiff's surgery, see Tr. 41 (referencing Plaintiff's October 2014 MRI), demonstrating that he did consider the whole record. The ALJ also gave partial weight to the State agency consultant on reconsideration who expressly considered Plaintiff's post-surgery records. Tr. 42 (finding that the record supported more limitations than the State agency consultant opined). Furthermore, the Commissioner is ...

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