Walls v. Colvin, No. 8:2016cv01290 - Document 17 (D. Md. 2017)

Court Description: MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Thomas M. DiGirolamo on 9/29/2017. (aos, Deputy Clerk)
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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND Southern Division ARETHA WALLS, * * Plaintiff, * * v. * * * NANCY A. BERRYHILL, * Acting Commissioner of Social Security, * * 1 Defendant. * ************ Civil No. TMD 16-1290 MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING PLAINTIFF’S ALTERNATIVE MOTION FOR REMAND Plaintiff Aretha Walls seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”) denying her application for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 15) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16).2 Plaintiff contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the Commissioner’s decision that she is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 15) is GRANTED. 1 On January 23, 2017, Nancy A. Berryhill became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security. She is, therefore, substituted as Defendant in this matter. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Fed. R. Civ. P. 25(d). 2 The Fourth Circuit has noted that, “in social security cases, we often use summary judgment as a procedural means to place the district court in position to fulfill its appellate function, not as a device to avoid nontriable issues under usual Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 standards.” Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 289 n.2 (4th Cir. 2002). For example, “the denial of summary judgment accompanied by a remand to the Commissioner results in a judgment under sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is immediately appealable.” Id. I Background Plaintiff was born in 1969, has a high-school education, and previously worked as an accounts payable clerk. R. at 22. Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on August 8, 2012, alleging disability beginning on May 13, 2012 (later amended to October 1, 2012), due to heart problems, damaged nerves, knee injury, and lung disease. R. at 14, 100-01, 146. The Commissioner denied Plaintiff’s application initially and again on reconsideration, so Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). R. at 48-72, 75-79. On September 8, 2014, ALJ Irving A. Pianin held a hearing at which Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 29-47. On October 15, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled from the amended alleged onset date of disability of October 1, 2012, through the date of the decision. R. at 11-28. Plaintiff sought review of this decision by the Appeals Council, which denied Plaintiff’s request for review on December 22, 2015. R. at 1-10. The ALJ’s decision thus became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981; see also Sims v. Apfel, 530 U.S. 103, 106-07, 120 S. Ct. 2080, 2083 (2000). On May 1, 2016, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner’s decision. After the parties consented, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final disposition and entry of judgment. The case then was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted. 2 II Summary of ALJ’s Decision On October 15, 2014, the ALJ found that Plaintiff (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of disability of October 1, 2012; and (2) had an impairment or a combination of impairments considered to be “severe” on the basis of the requirements in the Code of Federal Regulations; but (3) did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments meeting or equaling one of the impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1; and (4) was able to perform her past relevant work as an accounts payable clerk; and (5) could perform other work in the national economy, such an order clerk, information clerk, or office clerk. R. at 16-23. The ALJ thus found that she was not disabled from October 1, 2012, through the date of the decision. R. at 23. In so finding, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) except she can perform no more than occasional postural activity, with no climbing, and no exposure to heights or hazards involved.” R. at 18. The ALJ found that Plaintiff’s “medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, [her] statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible for the reasons explained in this decision.” R. at 19. “Primarily, the record reflects that [Plaintiff] has required only conservative treatment with medications and injections for her back and knee impairments, thus far.” R. at 19. III Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof The Social Security Act defines a disability as the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can 3 be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months. 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505, 416.905. A claimant has a disability when the claimant 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 either in the region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B). To determine whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25, 124 S. Ct. 376, 379-80 (2003). “If at any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be made, the [Commissioner] will not review the claim further.” Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24, 124 S. Ct. at 379; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The claimant has the burden of production and proof at steps one through four. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S. Ct. 2287, 2294 n.5 (1987); Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013). First, the Commissioner will consider a claimant’s work activity. If the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner looks to see whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment, i.e., an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work 4 activities. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 404.1521(a), 416.920(c), 416.921(a).3 Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Commissioner will consider the medical severity of the impairment. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively disabling impairments listed in the regulations, then the claimant is considered disabled, regardless of age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford, 734 F.3d at 293. Fourth, if the claimant’s impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the presumptively disabling impairments, then the Commissioner will assess the claimant’s RFC to determine the claimant’s “ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements” of the claimant’s past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.945(a)(4). RFC is a measurement of the most a claimant can do despite his or her limitations. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 562 (4th Cir. 2006); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). The claimant is responsible for providing evidence the Commissioner will use to make a finding as to the claimant’s RFC, but the Commissioner is responsible for developing the claimant’s “complete medical history, including arranging for a consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant’s] own medical sources.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). The Commissioner also will consider certain non-medical 3 The ability to do basic work activities is defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do most jobs.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1521(b), 416.921(b). These abilities and aptitudes include (1) physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, or handling; (2) capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding, carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and (6) dealing with changes in a routine work setting. Id. §§ 404.1521(b)(1)-(6), 416.921(b)(1)-(6); see Yuckert, 482 U.S. at 141, 107 S. Ct. at 2291. 5 evidence and other evidence listed in the regulations. See id. If a claimant retains the RFC to perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Fifth, if the claimant’s RFC as determined in step four will not allow the claimant to perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant’s RFC as determined at step four, age, education, and work experience. See Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472-73 (4th Cir. 2012). The Commissioner must prove not only that the claimant’s RFC will allow the claimant to make an adjustment to other work, but also that the other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See Walls, 296 F.3d at 290; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, then the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the Commissioner will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). IV Substantial Evidence Standard The Court reviews an ALJ’s decision to determine whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standards and whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. See Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). In other words, the issue before the Court “is not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ’s finding that [Plaintiff] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Id. The Court’s review is deferential, as “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 6 U.S.C. § 405(g). Under this standard, substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s conclusion. See Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472; see also Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S. Ct. 1420, 1427 (1971). In evaluating the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits, the court does “not conduct a de novo review of the evidence,” Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986), or undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. Rather, “[t]he duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court.” Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996). When conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). V Discussion Plaintiff contends that remand is warranted because, although the ALJ found that her severe impairments limited her ability to do basic work activities (R. at 17), the ALJ failed to place any limitation upon her ability to do such basic work activities in the RFC assessment, without explanation. Pl.’s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 5-6, ECF No. 15-1. She further maintains that the ALJ failed to evaluate properly pertinent evidence of her use of a cane (R. at 475). Id. at 6. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to consider the severity of her complex regional pain syndrome. Id. at 6-7. She further contends that the ALJ failed to evaluate properly the opinions of her treating physician’s assistant. Id. at 7-8. Plaintiff then argues that the ALJ erred in finding few abnormal objective findings in her medical records. 7 Id. at 8-9. She further maintains that the ALJ erroneously rejected the opinions of her treating physician’s assistant on the basis of her conservative treatment. Id. at 9-10. Plaintiff finally asserts that the ALJ failed to explain his assessment of her RFC. Id. at 10-11. Because inadequacy of the ALJ’s analysis frustrates meaningful review, the Court remands this case for further proceedings. Social Security Ruling4 96-8p explains how adjudicators should assess RFC and instructs that the RFC “assessment must first identify the individual’s functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions” listed in the regulations. “Only after that may [residual functional capacity] be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” The Ruling further explains that the residual functional capacity “assessment must include 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).” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (alteration in original) (footnote omitted) (citations omitted). The Fourth Circuit has held, however, that a per se rule requiring remand when the ALJ does not perform an explicit function-by-function analysis “is inappropriate given that remand would prove futile in cases where the ALJ does not discuss functions that are ‘irrelevant or uncontested.’” Id. (quoting Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2013) (per curiam)). Rather, remand 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.” Id. (quoting Cichocki, 4 Social Security Rulings are “final opinions and orders and statements of policy and interpretations” that the Social Security Administration has adopted. 20 C.F.R. § 402.35(b)(1). Once published, these rulings are binding on all components of the Social Security Administration. Heckler v. Edwards, 465 U.S. 870, 873 n.3, 104 S. Ct. 1532, 1534 n.3 (1984); 20 C.F.R. § 402.35(b)(1). “While they do not have the force of law, they are entitled to deference unless they are clearly erroneous or inconsistent with the law.” Pass, 65 F.3d at 1204 n.3. 8 729 F.3d at 177). The court in Mascio concluded that remand was appropriate because it was “left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at his conclusions on [the claimant’s] ability to perform relevant functions” because the ALJ had “said nothing about [the claimant’s] ability to perform them for a full workday,” despite conflicting evidence as to the claimant’s RFC that the ALJ did not address. Id. at 637; see Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 187-88 (4th Cir. 2016) (remanding because ALJ erred in not determining claimant’s RFC using function-by-function analysis; ALJ erroneously expressed claimant’s RFC first and then concluded that limitations caused by claimant’s impairments were consistent with that RFC). The Fourth Circuit in Mascio, 780 F.3d at 639-40, also found that remand was required in light of an ALJ’s lack of explanation concerning how the ALJ decided which of the claimant’s statements to credit. Mascio, in other words, “requires the ALJ to articulate which of a claimant’s individual statements are credible, rather than whether the claimant is credible as a general matter.” Armani v. Comm’r, Soc. Sec. Admin., No. JMC-14-CV-976, 2015 WL 2062183, at *1 (D. Md. May 1, 2015). Here, the ALJ found that Plaintiff’s allegations of disabling limitations were less than fully credible because she “required only conservative treatment with medications and injections for her back and knee impairments, thus far.” R. at 19. Indeed, “it is appropriate for the ALJ to consider the conservative nature of a plaintiff’s treatment—among other factors—in judging the credibility of the plaintiff.” Dunn v. Colvin, 607 F. App’x 264, 273 (4th Cir. 2015). The record reflects, however, that Plaintiff’s injections were not effective in alleviating her pain (e.g., R. at 465-66, 469-70, 474, 478-80). “Thus, although [Plaintiff’s] course of treatment . . . could be fairly characterized as ‘conservative,’ this by itself sheds little light on the severity of [her] symptoms . . . .” Shiplett v. Colvin, No. 5:15-CV-00055, 2016 WL 6783270, at *12 (W.D. Va. 9 Nov. 16, 2016). Moreover, in August 2014, Dr. Stephen Faust, Plaintiff’s treating orthopedist, recommended partial and total knee replacement. R. at 465. At the hearing, Plaintiff acknowledged the doctor’s recommendation and that “they have to wait to see if [her] kidney or whatever [is] well.” R. at 40. “The recommendation of surgery–an invasive form of treatment– demonstrates the seriousness of [Plaintiff’s] impairment. It also erodes the grounds for the ALJ’s finding that [Plaintiff’s] treatment was solely conservative.” Gregory v. Colvin, No. 4:15CV-5, 2016 WL 3072202, at *5 (W.D. Va. May 6, 2016), report and recommendation adopted, No. 4:15-CV-00005, 2016 WL 3077935 (W.D. Va. May 31, 2016). Thus, “the ALJ’s designation of [Plaintiff’s] course of treatment as ‘conservative’ amounts to improperly ‘playing doctor’ in contravention of the requirements of applicable regulations.” Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 869 (4th Cir. 2017). The ALJ also found that Plaintiff’s described daily living activities, such as doing light household chores, washing laundry, and grocery shopping, were consistent with at least sedentary work. R. at 22. Plaintiff testified, however, that she stopped doing household chores in February 2014. R. at 41-42. She also reported in November 2012 that, although she shopped for groceries at the time, her daughters accompanied her because they needed to assist her. R. at 168. Plaintiff would take half a day to clean her house because she had to stop every twenty minutes because of her pain. R. at 166. The VE testified that, if Plaintiff’s testimony regarding her need to lie down four to five hours a day were accepted as credible, then there would be no full-time work that she could perform. R. at 46. “Nowhere, however, does the ALJ explain how he decided which of [Plaintiff’s] statements to believe and which to discredit . . . .” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 640. “The ALJ cannot reject [the claimant’s] undisputed description of [her] daily activities simply because he thinks it is implausible.” May v. Colvin, No. 5:14CV00010, 2015 10 WL 1958948, at *14 (W.D. Va. May 1, 2015) (citing, inter alia, Hines, 453 F.3d at 566). Because the inadequacy of the ALJ’s analysis frustrates meaningful review, remand under the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) is appropriate, see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636, and the Court need not address Plaintiff's remaining arguments. VI Conclusion For the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16) is DENIED. Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 15) is DENIED. Plaintiff’s alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 15) is GRANTED. Defendant’s final decision is REVERSED under the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This matter is REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. A separate order will issue. Date: September 29, 2017 /s/ Thomas M. DiGirolamo United States Magistrate Judge 11