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Gina F. v. Berryhill

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

December 27, 2019

Gina F.

         Dear Counsel:

         Pending before this Court are cross-Motions for Summary Judgment. (ECF Nos. 14, 15). The Court must uphold the Social Security Administration (“SSA”)'s decision if it is 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.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589. This 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, the Court finds that no hearing is necessary. Local Rule (“L.R.”) 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 on October 28, 2014, alleging that disability began October 3, 2014. (Tr. 41). This claim was initially denied on March 12, 2015, and upon reconsideration, denied again on August 17, 2015. (Id.). Plaintiff's request for a hearing was granted and the hearing was conducted on April 17, 2017 by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id.). On June 12, 2017, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 10-26). On June 6, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the final and reviewable decision of the SSA. (Tr. 1-5).

         On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erroneously assessed the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). (ECF 14-1, pp. 3-11). The SSA counters that the ALJ's RFC analysis and assessment of Plaintiff's subjective complaints are supported by substantial evidence. (ECF No. 15-1, pp. 5-12).


         The Social Security Act defines disability as the “inability to engage in 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). An individual is deemed to have a disability if their “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work . . . which exists in significant numbers in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         To determine whether a person has a disability, the ALJ engages in the five-step sequential evaluation process set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 415.1520(a)(4)(i)-(v); 416.920. See e.g., Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 140-42 (1987); Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The steps used by the ALJ are as follows: step one, assesses whether a claimant had engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged disability onset date; step two, determine whether a claimant's impairments meet the severity and durations requirements found in the regulations; step three, ascertain whether a claimant's medical impairment meets or equals an impairment listed in the regulations (“the Listings”). If the first three steps are not conclusive, the ALJ assesses the claimant's residual function capacity, i.e., the most the claimant could do despite his or her limitations, through consideration of claimant's “‘medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware', including those not labeled severe at step two.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)). At step four, the ALJ analyzes whether a claimant could perform past work, given the limitations caused by his or her impairments; and at step five, the ALJ analyzes whether a claimant could perform any work. At steps one through four, it is the claimant's burden to show that he or she is disabled. See Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016). If the ALJ's evaluation moves to step five, the burden then shifts to the SSA to prove that a claimant has the ability to perform work and, therefore, is not disabled. Id. at 180.

         Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered the following severe impairments: postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome; arrhythmia; cervical degenerative disc disease; right shoulder degenerative disc changes; and obesity. (Tr.15). Despite these impairments, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to:

perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR § 404.1567(a) except: the claimant can lift and carry less than 10 pounds occasionally. The claimant retains the ability to climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel crouch and crawl occasionally, but she can never climb ladders, ropes of scaffolds. The claimant can never work at unprotected heights or around hazards such as moving mechanical parts. The claimant is limited to the performance of simple, repetitive tasks. (Tr. 19) (emphasis supplied).

         At the hearing before the ALJ, a vocational expert (“VE”) testified about whether a hypothetical individual with the same limitations as the Plaintiff could perform Plaintiff's prior work as a member services representative, a director of member services, or an operations service manager. (Tr. 66). The VE testified that the hypothetical person could not do so, however, could perform other work existing in significant numbers in the national economy, e.g., food and beverage order clerk, sedentary assembler, and a document preparer. (Id.). Therefore, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 10).


         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erroneously assessed her RFC pursuant to Social Security Ruling 96-8p. (ECF No. 14-1, pp. 3). Specifically, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred by: (a) failing to evaluate Dr. Khurana's medical source opinion; (b) failing to address a state agency physician's opinion regarding her concentration and attention impairments, and failing to include any limitation in her RFC related to the same; and (c) failing to find that her migraines were severe and failing to include a limitation in her RFC related to those headaches. (Id., pp. 3-12).

         When assessing a claimant's RFC, the law requires an ALJ to consider all of 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 considers any inconsistencies in 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 them being consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence. Id. An ALJ's 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). The Fourth Circuit has recently held that a “proper RFC analysis has three components: (1) evidence; (2) logical explanation, and (3) conclusion. The second component, the ALJ's logical explanation is just ...

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