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June G. v. Saul

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

December 16, 2019

JUNE G., Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, [1]Acting Commissioner, Social Security Administration Defendant.



         June G. (“Plaintiff”) brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (“Commissioner”). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) beginning March 16, 2015. Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, ECF No. 15, (“Plaintiff's Motion”), Plaintiff's Alternative Motion for Remand, ECF No. 15, (“Plaintiff's Alternative Motion”) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (“Commissioner's Motion”), ECF No. 18. The Court has reviewed the motions, related memoranda, and the applicable law. No. hearing is deemed necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md.). For the reasons presented below, the Court hereby DENIES Plaintiff's Motion, DENIES Commissioner's Motion, GRANTS Plaintiff's Alternative Motion, and REMANDS the ALJ's decision pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. A separate order will issue.

         I. Procedural Background

         On December 11, 2015, Plaintiff filed for DIB under Title II of the SSA, alleging disability beginning March 16, 2015. R. 68.[2] Plaintiff alleged disability due to degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, history of seizure disorder, mood disorder and anxiety disorder. R. 25; Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. 2, ECF No. 15-1. Plaintiff's claims were initially denied on June 2, 2016, R. 87, and upon reconsideration on October 19, 2016. R. 107, 23.[3] An administrative hearing was held on October 16, 2017. R. 23, 43. On February 23, 2018, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled and denied Plaintiff's claim for DIB. R. 36. Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council, which concluded on September 19, 2018, that there was no basis for granting the request for review. R. 1-6. Plaintiff subsequently filed an appeal with this Court. ECF No. 1.

         II. Standard of Review

         On appeal, the Court has the power to affirm, modify, or reverse the decision of the ALJ “with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2019). The Court must affirm the ALJ's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence and the ALJ applied the correct law. Id. (“The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”); see also Russell v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 440 Fed.Appx. 163, 164 (4th Cir. 2011) (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). “In other words, if the ALJ has done his or her job correctly and supported the decision reached with substantial evidence, this Court cannot overturn the decision, even if it would have reached a contrary result on the same evidence.” Schoofield v. Barnhart, 220 F.Supp.2d 512, 515 (D. Md. 2002). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla.” Russell, 440 Fed.Appx. at 164. “It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Id. (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)); see also Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted) (“It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.”).

         The Court does not review the evidence presented below de novo, nor does the Court “determine the weight of the evidence” or “substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citations omitted); see also Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972) (“[T]he language of § [405(g)] precludes a de novo judicial proceeding and requires that the court uphold the Secretary's decision even should the court disagree with such decision as long as it is supported by ‘substantial evidence.'”). The ALJ, not the Court, has the responsibility to make findings of fact and resolve evidentiary conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citations omitted). If the ALJ's factual finding, however, “was reached by means of an improper standard or misapplication of the law, ” then that finding is not binding on the Court. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987) (citations omitted).

         The Commissioner shall find a person legally disabled under Title II if he is unable “to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a) (2012). The Code of Federal Regulations outlines a five-step process that the Commissioner must follow to determine if a claimant meets this definition:

1) Determine whether the plaintiff is “doing substantial gainful activity.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i) (2012). If he is doing such activity, he is not disabled. If he is not doing such activity, proceed to step two.
2) Determine whether the plaintiff has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in § [404.1509], or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii) (2012). If he does not have such impairment or combination of impairments, he is not disabled. If he does meet these requirements, proceed to step three.
3) Determine whether the plaintiff has an impairment that “meets or equals one of [the C.F.R.'s] listings in appendix 1 of this subpart and meets the duration requirement.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii) (2012). If he does have such impairment, he is disabled. If he does not, proceed to step four.
4) Determine whether the plaintiff retains the “residual functional capacity” (“RFC”) to perform “past relevant work.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv) (2012). If he can perform such work, he is not disabled. If he cannot, proceed to step five.
5) Determine whether the plaintiff can perform other work, considering his RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v) (2012). If he can perform other work, he is not disabled. If he cannot, he is disabled.

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) (2012). Plaintiff has the burden to prove that he is disabled at steps one through four, and Commissioner has the burden to prove that Plaintiff is not disabled at step five. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992).

         The RFC is an assessment that represents the most a claimant can still do despite any physical and mental limitations on a “regular and continuing basis.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(b)-(c) (2012). In making this assessment, the ALJ “must consider all of the claimant's ‘physical and mental impairments, severe and otherwise, and determine, on a function-by-function basis, how they affect [the claimant's] ability to work.'” Thomas v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 307, 311 (4th Cir. 2019) (citing Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 188 (4th Cir. 2016)); See also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) (2012). The ALJ must present a “narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g. laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g. daily activities, observations), ” and must then “explain how any material inconsistencies or ambiguities in the evidence in the case record were considered and resolved.” See Thomas, 916 F.3d at 311; SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 at *7 (S.S.A. July 2, 1996). “Once the ALJ has completed the function-by-function analysis, the ALJ can make a finding as to the claimant's RFC.” Thomas, 916 F.3d at 311. “Ultimately, it is the duty of the [ALJ] reviewing the case, and not the responsibility of the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts of evidence.” Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979)). “[R]emand may be appropriate . . . where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where other inadequacies in the ALJ's analysis frustrate meaningful review.” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2013)).

         III. Analysis

         The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's claim using the five-step sequential evaluation process. R. 25-36. At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 16, 2015, the alleged onset date of Plaintiff's disability. R. 25. At step two, under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; history of a seizure disorder; mood disorder; and an anxiety disorder.” R. 25. The ALJ stated that the listed impairments “significantly limit the ability to perform basic work activities as required by SSR 85-28.” R. 25. At step three, the ALJ determined Plaintiff “does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).” R. 25. Further, the ALJ also determined that Plaintiff had a moderate limitation with regard to concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. R.26. Before turning to step four, the ALJ determined that claimant had the RFC to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(a) with the following additional limitations:

[Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; she can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she occasionally stoop, [sic] kneel, crouch, or crawl; [Plaintiff] can never work around unprotected heights; and she can never operate a motor vehicle. [Plaintiff] can never work around dangerous moving mechanical parts, sharp objects, or open flames. [Plaintiff] is limited to simple tasks with occasional interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public.

R. 27. At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff is unable to perform any past relevant work. R. 34. At step five, with the benefit of a Vocational Expert (“VE”), the ALJ found that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff can perform.” R. 35. These jobs include: Document Preparer, Semi-Conductor Bonder, and Touch-Up Screener. R. 35.

         On appeal, Plaintiff argues that the Court should reverse the ALJ's decision, or in the alternative remand this matter for a new administrative hearing, alleging that the ALJ's RFC determination was not supported with substantial evidence because: (1) The RFC the ALJ presented to the VE is legally insufficient; and (2) The ALJ failed to give proper weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physician. Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. 8-12.

         A. Residual Functional Capacity

         Plaintiff asserts that the RFC presented to the VE is insufficient because it does not reflect Plaintiff's issues with seizures, lower back pain, fibromyalgia fatigue, focus, concentration, memory issues, anxiety, depression, seizures, and pain. Id. at 11. Plaintiff then contends that “[h]ad the ALJ included exertional and mental limitations in his RFC finding, a favorable decision would be warranted.” Id. The Court finds that Plaintiff's argument is essentially a challenge to the ALJ's RFC, therefore, the Court must analyze whether the RFC was supported by substantial evidence.

         Generally, the Court will affirm the Social Security Administration's disability determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 691 (4th Cir. 2018) (citing Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634). But when performing an RFC assessment, the ALJ must provide a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts and nonmedical evidence. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (S.S.A). “In other words, the ALJ must both identify evidence that supports his conclusion and ‘build an accurate logical bridge from [that] evidence to his conclusion.'” Woods, 888 F.3d at 694 (emphasis in original).

         A proper RFC analysis has three components: (1) evidence; (2) logical explanation; and (3) conclusion. Thomas, 916 F.3d at 311. The ALJ's logical explanation is just as important as the other two. Id. Without a proper narrative discussion from the ALJ, it is impossible for the Court to determine whether the decision was based on substantial evidence. Geblaoui v. Berryhill, No. CBD-17-1229, 2018 WL 3049223, at *3 (D. Md. June 20, 2018) (citing Jones v. Astrue, No. SKG-09-1683, 2011 WL 5833638, at *14 (D. Md. Nov. 18, 2011)). “The ALJ has the obligation to consider all relevant medical evidence and cannot simply cherrypick facts that support a finding of nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a disability finding.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 869 (4th Cir. 2017) (emphasis added). The ALJ must also include “a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Monroe, 826 F.3d at 189 (citing Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013)).

         1. The ALJ's RFC was insufficient because it failed to include an explicit conclusion about how Plaintiff's mental limitations affect her ability ...

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