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Wanda H. v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

December 9, 2019

WANDA H., [1]Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, [2]Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DAVID J. NOVAK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         On April 16, 2013, Wanda H. ("Plaintiff) applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") and, on April 23, 2013, for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from degenerative changes in the lumbar spine, obesity, major depressive disorder, schizoaffective disorder, an unspecified anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"), and alcohol abuse, with an alleged onset date of March 3, 2013. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs claims both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claims in a written decision, which the Appeals Council vacated and remanded for further consideration. The ALJ issued a second decision denying Plaintiffs claims and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's second decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's second decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in: (1) assigning non-controlling weight to the opinion of Plaintiffs treating psychiatrist, Noman Shamim, M.D.; (2) failing to explicitly state whether Plaintiffs medical impairments could reasonably be expected to produce her alleged pain; and, (3) failing to account for Plaintiffs limitations in concentration, persistence and pace in assessing Plaintiffs mental residual functional capacity. (Mem. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 15) at 9-21.) This matter now comes before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, rendering the matter ripe for review.[3] For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13) and Motion to Remand (ECF No. 14), DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 16) and VACATES and REMANDS the final decision of the Commissioner pursuant to the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On April 16, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and, on April 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for SSI, with an alleged onset date of March 3, 2013. (R. at 129, 142, 391.) The SSA denied these claims initially on September 20, 2013, and again upon reconsideration on June 11, 2014. (R. at 155-56, 193-94.) At Plaintiffs written request, (R. at 251-52), the ALJ held a hearing on October 22, 2015, (R. at 71-100). On February 4, 2016, the ALJ issued a written opinion denying Plaintiffs claims and finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 198-212.) On February 24, 2017, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiffs request for review, vacated the ALJ's decision, and remanded the case to the ALJ with instructions to further consider the severity of Plaintiff s mental impairments and their effect on her ability to perform work-related activities. (R. at 222-23.) The ALJ held a second hearing on December 18, 2017. (R. at 43-70.) The ALJ issued a written opinion on June 20, 2018, again denying Plaintiffs claims. (R. at 20-33.) On November 1, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's second decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         In reviewing the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits, a 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.'" Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Bird v. Comm V of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012)). Substantial evidence requires more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance, and includes the kind of relevant evidence that a reasonable mind could accept as adequate to support a conclusion. Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); Craig v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). Indeed, "the substantial evidence standard 'presupposes ... a zone of choice within which the decision makers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.'" Dunn v. Colvin, 607 Fed.Appx. 264, 274 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988)). To determine whether substantial evidence exists, the court must examine the record, but may not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). In considering the decision of the Commissioner based on the record as a whole, the court must "take into account whatever in the record fairly detracts from its weight." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1007 (4th Cir. 1974) (quoting Universal Camera Corp. v. N.L.R.B., 340 U.S. 474, 488 (1951)). The Commissioner's findings as to any fact, if substantial evidence in the record supports the findings, bind the reviewing court to affirm regardless of whether the court disagrees with such findings. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 477. If substantial evidence in the record does not support the ALJ's determination or if the ALJ has made an error of law, the court must reverse the decision. Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987).

         SSA regulations set forth a five-step process that the agency employs to determine whether disability exists. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4); see Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35 (describing the ALJ's five-step sequential evaluation). To summarize, at step one, the ALJ looks at the claimant's current work activity. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(ii), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Step three requires the ALJ to determine whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(a)(4)(iii). Between steps three and four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC"), accounting for the most that the claimant can do despite her physical and mental limitations. §§ 404.1545(a), 416.945(a). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 416.920(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in significant numbers in the national economy. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On December 18, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 43-70.) On June 20, 2018, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 19-33.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claims. (R. at 18-32.) At step one, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 3, 2013, her alleged onset date. (R. at 19.) At step two, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative changes in the lumbar spine, obesity, major depressive disorder, schizoaffective disorder, anxiety disorder NOS, panic disorder, PTSD and alcohol abuse. (R. at 19.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not suffer from an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. at 20-21.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), with some additional limitations. (R. at 21-22.) Specifically, the ALJ noted that Plaintiff could occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb stairs and ramps. (R. at 22.) Plaintiff could never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. (R. at 22.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff could have no more than occasional exposure to workplace hazards, such as dangerous moving machinery, and no exposure to unprotected heights. (R. at 22.) As for Plaintiffs mental capacity, the ALJ opined that Plaintiff could "perform unskilled work at an SVP of 1 or 2 involving simple, routine tasks with ordinary breaks where the pace of productivity is not dictated by an external source over which she had no control, such as conveyer belts." (R. at 22.) And the ALJ limited Plaintiff to no contact with the general public and only occasional contact with supervisors and co-workers, with no tandem work assignments. (R. at 22.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (R. at 31.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of merchandise marker, routing clerk and housekeeper. (R. at 31-32.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 32-33.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, fifty-two years old at the time of this Memorandum Opinion, previously worked as a sewing operator and furniture assembler. (R. at 31.) She applied for DIB and SSI, alleging disability from degenerative changes in the lumbar spine, obesity, major depressive disorder, schizoaffective disorder, an unspecified anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD and alcohol abuse, with an alleged onset date of March 3, 2013. (R. at 129, 142.) Plaintiffs appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred in: (1) assigning non-controlling weight to the opinion of Plaintiffs treating psychiatrist, Dr. Shamim; (2) failing to explicitly state whether Plaintiffs medical impairments could reasonably be expected to produce her alleged pain; and, (3) failing to account for Plaintiffs limitations in concentration, persistence and pace in assessing the Plaintiffs mental RFC. (Pl.'s Mem. at 9-21.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ erred in her decision.

         A. The ALJ Provided Insufficient Reasons for Affording Dr. Shamim's Opinion Little Weight.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in assigning little weight to the opinion of Dr. Shamim. (Pl.'s Mem. at 9-13.) Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ was "too conclusory" when she stated that Dr. Shamim's opinion "appear[ed] to overstate [Plaintiffs] limitations in comparison to the record as a whole," and that the ALJ's explanation was legally insufficient. (Pl.'s Mem. at 11 (quoting R. at 29).) Plaintiff contends that Dr. Shamim's opinion, if credited, would fully establish Plaintiffs disability. (Pl.'s Mem. at 9.) Defendant responds that the ALJ appropriately assigned weight to Dr. Shamim's medical opinion ...


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