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Vanessa M. v. Saul

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

December 11, 2019

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

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DAVID J. NOVAK, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On July 22, 2015, Vanessa M. ("Plaintiff) applied for Social Security Disability Benefits ("DIB") under the Social Security Act ("Act"), alleging disability from traumatic brain injury ("TBI") and major depressive disorder, with an amended alleged onset date of April 3, 2014. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs claim both initially and upon reconsideration. Thereafter, an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiffs claim in a written decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), arguing that the ALJ erred in: (1) finding that Plaintiffs TBI did not meet or medically equal the criteria of Listing 12.02; and, (2) affording "little weight" to the opinions of Gregory J. O'Shanick, M.D., and Arezoo Khanzadeh, Psy.D. (Mem. in Support of Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") (ECF No. 13) at 2-3.) 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 that follow, the Court hereby ORDERS that Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 12) be DENIED, that Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 14) be GRANTED and that the final decision of the Commissioner be AFFIRMED.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On July 21, 2015, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB with an amended alleged onset date of April 3, 2014. (R. at 13.) The SSA denied this claim initially on March 18, 2016, and again upon reconsideration on July 28, 2016. (R. at 13.) At Plaintiffs written request, the ALJ held a hearing on December 5, 2017. (R. at 13.) On May 31, 2018, the ALJ issued a written opinion, denying Plaintiffs claim and concluding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 13-26.) On November 13, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to review by this Court. (R. at 1-3.)

         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'r 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. Chater, 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 F. App'x. 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 as a whole, 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 ALI 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), 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). At step two, the ALJ asks whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration requirements. § 404.1520(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). 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). At step four, the ALJ assesses whether the claimant can perform her past work given her RFC. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Finally, at step five, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any work existing in the national economy. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         On December 5, 2017, the ALJ held a hearing during which Plaintiff (represented by counsel) and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. (R. at 13.) On May 13, 2018, the ALJ issued a written opinion, finding that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (R. at 13-26.)

         The ALJ followed the five-step evaluation process established by the Social Security Act in analyzing Plaintiffs disability claim. (R. at 16-26.) At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between April 3, 2014, her amended alleged onset date, and December 31, 2016, her date last insured. (R. at 16.) At step two, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had several severe impairments, including major neurocognitive disorder due to TBI, somatoform disorder, depression and anxiety. (R. at 16.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments. (R. at 16.)

         In assessing Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform sedentary work with additional limitations. (R. at 18.) Specifically, the ALJ found that "while [Plaintiff] could occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and climb ramps and stairs," Plaintiff could never "climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds." (R. at 18.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff could "occasionally reach overhead bilaterally," but Plaintiff could not handle exposure to heights and hazards. (R. at 18.) Additionally, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could engage in "routine interactions with co-workers and supervisors in settings where tasks involve work primarily with things not people." (R. at 18.) Plaintiff "could have incidental interaction with the public and she was able to adapt to the occasional routine changes associated with unskilled repetitive tasks." (R. at 18.) However, the ALJ concluded that "[w]ith normal breaks," Plaintiff was limited "to understanding, remembering, applying, and carrying out unskilled repetitive tasks." (R. at 18.)

         At step four, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. (R. at 24.) At step five, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, including the representative occupations of sorter, inspector and document preparer. (R. at 25.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff, forty-two years old at the time of this Memorandum Opinion, previously worked as a home attendant and a cashier. (R. at 24.) She applied for DIB, alleging disability from TBI and major depressive disorder, with an amended alleged onset date of April 3, 2014. (R. at 259-60.) Plaintiffs appeal to this Court alleges that the ALJ erred in: (1) finding that Plaintiffs TBI did not meet or medically equal the criteria of Listing 12.02; and, (2) affording "little weight" to the opinions of Dr. O'Shanick and Dr. Khanzadeh. (Pl.'s Mem. at 2-3.) For the reasons set forth below, the ALJ did not err in her decision.

         A. The ALJ Properly Concluded That Plaintiffs TBI Did Not Meet or Medically Equal the Criteria of Listing 12.02, and Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Findings.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in her step-three determination that Plaintiffs TBI did not meet or medically equal the criteria of Listing 12.02. (Pl.'s Mem. at 6, 19.) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiffs TBI did not result in marked limitations in at least two of the functional areas outlined in Paragraph (B) of Listing 12.02. (Pl.'s Mem. at 6.) Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ failed to provide an adequate explanation for her findings. (Pl.'s Mem. at 12, 15-18.) Plaintiff adds that the ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiffs TBI did not satisfy Paragraph (C) of Listing 12.02. (Pl.'s Mem. at 19.) Defendant responds that Plaintiff failed to establish that she experienced marked limitations pursuant to Paragraph (B) and that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's finding that Plaintiff experienced only moderate impairments in the relevant areas of functioning. (Def.'s Mem. at 15.) Additionally, Defendant argues that Plaintiff failed to present evidence to satisfy Paragraph (C). (Def.'s Mem. at 22.)

         At step three, Plaintiff bears the burden of proving that she meets or medically equals a listing. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). The listings "were designed to operate as a presumption of disability that makes further inquiry unnecessary" and, consequently, require an exacting standard of proof. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532-33 (1990.) "For a claimant to show that his impairment matches a listing, it must meet all of the specified medical criteria. An impairment that manifests only some of those criteria, no matter how severely, does not qualify." Id. at 530.

         To meet Listing 12.02's requirements and to qualify her as disabled at step three, Plaintiffs TBI must satisfy Paragraphs (A) and (B) or Paragraphs (A) and (C), which require:

A. Medical documentation of a significant cognitive decline from a prior level of functioning in one or more of the cognitive areas: 1. Complex attention; 2. Executive function; 3. Learning and memory; 4. Language; 5. Perceptual-motor; or 6. Social cognition. AND
B. Extreme limitation of one, or marked limitation of two, of the following areas of mental functioning:[4] 1. Understand, remember, or apply information; [or] 2. Interact with others [or] 3. Concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; [or] 4. Adapt or manage oneself.[5] OR
C. Your mental disorder in this listing category is "serious and persistent;" that is, you have a medically documented history of the existence of the disorder over a period of at least 2 years, and there is evidence of both: 1. Medical treatment, mental health therapy, psychosocial support(s), or a highly structured setting(s) that is ongoing and that diminishes the symptoms and signs of your mental disorder; and 2. Marginal adjustment, that is, you have minimal capacity to adapt to changes in your environment or to demands that are not already part of your daily life.[6]

20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1, 12.02(A)-(C).

         Here, the ALJ found that the severity of Plaintiff s impairments "considered singly and in combination, did not meet or medically equal" the Listing 12.02 criteria under both Paragraphs (B)and(C). (R. at 16.) The ALJ first examined the Paragraph (B) criteria. (R. at 16-18.) The ALJ considered Plaintiffs testimony, the objective medical history, and the opinions of state agency psychologists in reaching her conclusion that Plaintiff failed to satisfy the Paragraph (B) criteria. (R. at 16-17.) The ALJ also considered whether Plaintiff had satisfied the Paragraph (C) criteria, and again concluded that the evidence did not support a finding that Plaintiffs impairments met or medically equaled the listing criteria. (R. at 17-18.) The Court finds that the ALJ's explanation in support of her step three findings proved legally sufficient. Moreover, substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings.

         i. The ALJ Adequately Explained Plaintiffs Limitations in the Areas of Functioning Outlined in Paragraph (B) of Listing 12.02, and Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Findings.

         Pursuant to the first area of functioning under Paragraph (B), the ALJ found that Plaintiff had a moderate limitation in understanding, remembering or applying information. (R. at 16.) She supported her finding using Plaintiffs testimony and Plaintiffs treatment notes from March 2015, and acknowledged that Plaintiffs memory problems persisted through October 2015. (R. at 16.) The ALJ noted that Plaintiff still had "minor difficulties with her short-term memory" in February 2016, but observed that Plaintiffs "thought processes were intact and goal oriented." (R. at 16.) Ultimately, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiffs ability to take care of her child independently, travel alone and with her child, and volunteer at her child's school all indicated that Plaintiff had only a moderate limitation in understanding, remembering or applying information. (R. at 17.)

         Substantial evidence in the record supports the ALJ's finding. Plaintiff testified that she has "a lot of memory issues." (R. at 50.) On March 2, 2015, Plaintiff presented to Dr. Khanzadeh complaining of memory problems and an inability to perform daily tasks. (R. at 282.) On May 21, 2015, Plaintiff complained that she had difficulty remembering words "due to short-term memory deficits" and struggled with recognizing words while reading. (R. at 337.) She suffered from "persistent and permanent deficits in her short-term memory" and indicated that she forgot things daily, including when to pick her daughter up from school, whether she completed basic hygiene and when to pay bills. (R. at 337.) By October 7, 2015, Plaintiff still had difficulty remembering and felt like she was "in a fog." (R. at 380.) However, by February 23, 2016, Faye Romano, M.D., concluded that while Plaintiff had minor disturbances in executive function and minor difficulty with short-term memory, she did not have difficulty with recent or long-term memory and exhibited focused thought processes. (R. ...


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