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James T. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

December 27, 2019

James T.

         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before this Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 16). A court must uphold the Social Security Administration's (“SSA” or “the Agency”) decision if it supported by substantial evidence and if the Agency employed proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3)(2016); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The substantial evidence rule “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Chater, 76 F.3d at 589. A court shall not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for that of the SSA. (Id.). Upon review of the pleadings and the record, this Court finds that no hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, both Motions are DENIED and the SSA's judgment is remanded for further consideration.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed a Title II Application for Disability Insurance Benefits and Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits on April 1, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of February 21, 2014. (Tr. 14). The SSA denied Plaintiff's application initially on August 15, 2014 and upon reconsideration, denied it again on February 4, 2015. (Id.). The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) granted Plaintiff's request for a hearing and conducted it on April 4, 2017. (Id.). On August 27, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during the relevant time frame. (Tr. 14-32). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final, reviewable decision of the Agency. (Tr. 1-5).


         In deciding to deny Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ followed the five-step sequential evaluation process regarding disability set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. See also Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The steps used by the ALJ were as follows: step one, assess whether Plaintiff engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date; step two, determine whether Plaintiff's impairments met the severity and durations requirements found in the regulations; step three, ascertain whether Plaintiff's medical impairment met or equaled an impairment listed in the regulations, 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (“the Listings”); step four, analyze whether Plaintiff could perform her past work, given the limitations caused by her impairments; and at step five, analyze whether Plaintiff could perform any work. (Tr. 31-40). Because the first three steps did not yield a conclusive determination, the ALJ also assessed Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”)-i.e., the “most the claimant ‘c[ould] still do despite, physical and mental limitations that affect[ed] her ability to work”-by considering all of Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments, regardless of their severity. See Mascio, at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)). Per Mascio, Plaintiff bore the burden of proof through the first four steps of the sequential evaluation process. 780 F.3d at 636. Upon making the requisite showing, the burden shifted to the Agency at step five to prove that Plaintiff could perform other work that “exist[ed] in significant numbers in the national economy, ” in light of her “[RFC], age, education and work experience.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 862 (4th Cir. 2017) (internal citations omitted).

         Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments beginning on February 21, 2014: degenerative joint disease and effusion of right knee, status-post surgical open reduction and internal fixation (ORIF) and repair, degenerative joint disease of right shoulder, tendon tear of left shoulder, and gout in lower extremity. (Tr. 17). Recognizing those severe impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the RFC to:

perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except occasional push/pull with the bilateral lower extremities, occasional push/pull and reach overhead with the bilateral upper extremities, occasionally climb ramps/stairs, never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally kneel and crouch, frequently stoop, never crawl. (Tr. 19).

         At the hearing, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified about whether a hypothetical person who was limited to light exertional work, could perform jobs that the Plaintiff previously performed. (Tr. 66). Next, the ALJ asked the VE about a hypothetical person with the same limitations as the Plaintiff could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. The VE opined that the person, could do so e.g., as a production inspector, a price marker, an informational clerk, and mail clerk. (Tr. 67-68). Therefore, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id.).


         On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ committed several prejudicial errors in evaluating his mental impairments and in determining his RFC, namely, by failing to: (a) explain how she determined that Plaintiff was limited to the performance of light exertional-level work; (b) explain how she evaluated a Work Activity Questionnaire; and (c) resolve an apparent conflict between the testimony of the vocational expert and the information contained in The Dictionary of Occupational Titles. (ECF No. 14, pp. 5-13).

         When assessing a claimant's RFC, the regulations require that an ALJ consider all the claimant's medically-determinable impairments, including any medically-determinable impairments that are not “severe.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.925(a)(2). The ALJ is to consider any inconsistency between the evidence and the extent to which there are any conflicts between a claimant's statements and the rest of the evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)(4). An ALJ will determine if a claimant's symptoms will diminish his or her capacity for basic work activities, subject to the symptoms being consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. Id. The RFC determination should include a “narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion citing specific medical facts . . . and nonmedical evidence.” Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7 (July 2, 1996). Accordingly, a “proper RFC analysis contains three components: (1) evidence, (2) logical explanation, and (3) conclusion. The second component, the ALJ's logical explanation, is just as important as the other two.” Thomas v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 307, 311 (4th Cir. 2019). See also Petry v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. SAG-16-464, 2017 WL 680379, at *2 (D.Md. Feb. 21, 2017) (the ALJ should build “an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion”).

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to adequately explain how she determined that Plaintiff was limited to the performance of “light exertional level work.” (ECF No. 14, p. 6). In contrast, Defendant relies on Thomason v. Astrue, No. TMD-08-3403, 2012 WL 707003 (D.Md. Mar. 2, 2012), to argue that the Plaintiff advances a “boilerplate argument” that failed to provide a narrative discussion when assessing Plaintiff's RFC. (ECF No. 16-1, p. 6).

         The Fourth Circuit has held that “meaningful review is frustrated when an ALJ merely lists the evidence, and then simply states a conclusion.” Thomas, 916 F.3d at 311. An ALJ's narrative discussion “must both identify evidence that supports [the] conclusion and build an accurate and logical bridge from [that] evidence to [the] ...

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