United States District Court, District of Columbia
MICHAEL HARVEY UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
action, Plaintiff Karen Johnson seeks reversal of a decision
of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her benefits
pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
Before the Court are Plaintiff's motion for judgment of
reversal and Defendant's motion for judgment of
affirmance. Plaintiff raises two issues. First,
Plaintiff argues that the administrative law judge
("ALJ") failed to consider relevant medical
evidence and failed to properly develop the administrative
record. Second, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ's decision
runs contrary to the general public interest. Neither claim
has merit. Upon review of the entire record,  the Court will
deny Plaintiff's motion and grant Defendant's motion.
A. Legal Framework for Social Security Disability
eligible for disability benefits under the Social Security
Act, a claimant must be found to be "disabled" by
the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). 42
U.S.C. § 423(a). In most cases, to determine whether a
claimant is disabled within the meaning of the Act, an ALJ
gathers evidence, holds a hearing, takes testimony, and
performs a five-step legal evaluation of the claimant using
that evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920.
evaluation, the ALJ must determine whether: (1) the claimant
is "presently engaged in substantial gainful
activity"; (2) the claimant has a "medically severe
impairment or impairments"; (3) the claimant's
impairment is equivalent to one of the impairments listed in
the appendix of the relevant disability regulation; (4) the
impairment prevents the claimant from performing his past
relevant work; and (5) the claimant, in light of his age,
education, work experience, and residual functioning capacity
("RFC"), can still perform another job that is
available in the national economy. Id. A
claimant's RFC is his ability to perform either past
relevant work or any other work available in the national
economy. See Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 1000
(D.C. Cir. 2004). According to Social Security Ruling
("SSR") 96-8p, "RFC is an administrative
assessment of the extent to which an individual's
medically determinable impairment(s), including any related
symptoms, such as pain, may cause physical or mental
limitations or restrictions that may affect his or her
capacity to do work-related physical and mental
activities" in a work setting for eight hours per day,
five days a week, or an equivalent work schedule. Titles
II & XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial
Claims, SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (July 2,
1996). In short, it represents the most a
claimant is able to do notwithstanding his physical or mental
limitations. See Butler, 353 F.3d at 1000.
claimant bears the burden of proof in the first four steps of
the evaluation. Callahan v. Astrue, 786 F.Supp.2d
87, 89 (D.D.C. 2011). At step five, however, the burden
shifts to the Commissioner to identify specific jobs
available in the national economy that the claimant can
perform. Id.In making this determination, an ALJ may
call a vocational expert ("VE") to testify as to
whether a claimant can perform other work that exists in the
national economy. Id. at 90. A VE may draw her
conclusions from a number of sources, including the
Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT").
Id. The DOT, last published by the U.S. Department
of Labor in 1991, provides a brief description of occupations
within the national economy and lists the capabilities that
each occupation requires of a worker. See generally
Introduction to Dictionary of Occupational Titles (4th ed.
1991), available at 1991 WL 645964. Along with VE testimony,
the SSA generally relies on the DOT to determine if there are
jobs in the national economy that a claimant can perform
given his RFC. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.966-416.969.
Plaintiff Karen Johnson
time of the alleged onset of her disability, Plaintiff was a
40-year-old woman residing in the District of Columbia. AR
20. Plaintiff has a high school education, she worked
full-time as a cashier between October 1999 and August 2001,
and she worked part-time as a general office clerk between
August 2004 and December 2010. Id. at 223.
Plaintiff's Application for Benefits
30, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental
security income under Title XVI of the Social Security Act.
Id. at 14, 30. Plaintiff initially alleged
disability beginning June 1, 2003, due to a host of physical
impairments, including obesity-related conditions,
respiratory ailments, and severe headaches, but the onset
date was later clarified to be June 30, 2011. Id.
She also filed an application for disability benefits under
Title II of the Act, alleging an onset date of December 17,
2010. Id. On November 2, 2011, the Commissioner
initially denied Plaintiff's claim, determining that her
current symptoms were not severe enough to keep her from
working. Id. at 72. Plaintiff requested
reconsideration of that decision, but the Commissioner again
denied her claim on July 17, 2012. Id. at 82, 100.
On September 25, 2012, the Commissioner granted
Plaintiff's request for a hearing. Id. at 103.
Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held before an
ALJ on March 7, 2014. Id. at 28-64. On April 7,
2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim on the grounds
that she could return to her past work as a general office
clerk and that she was capable of performing a limited range
of light work available in the national economy. Id.
appealed the ALJ's decision, and on September 12, 2015,
the SSA Appeals Council denied her request for review.
Id. at 1-3. The ALJ's decision thus became the
Commissioner's final decision, see Ryan v.
Bentsen, 12 F.3d 245, 247 (D.C. Cir. 1993), and
Plaintiff thereafter commenced this action.
administrative hearing was held in this case before the ALJ.
AR 28-64. During this hearing, Plaintiff testified and was
represented by counsel. Id. at 28. The ALJ evaluated
Plaintiff's symptoms based on evidence in the
administrative record, including medical records and
opinions, Plaintiff's statements, and testimony from a
VE. The Court recounts the relevant portions of the
administrative record below.
Dr. Roger Weir - Treating Physician
April 14, 2011, Plaintiff saw Dr. Roger Weir, a neurologist,
with complaints of pain in her head, back, joints, and hip.
Id. at 415. Plaintiff reported "massive
headaches" that began in July 2010, asserting that her
symptoms prevented her from moving her neck and left her
sensitive to loud noises. Id. She rated her pain as
a seven out of ten, but it caused no vomiting or nausea.
Id. During another visit on June 3, 2011, Plaintiff
explained that these headaches initially occurred in 1993,
calming down that same year, but had recently returned.
Id. at 420. She reported that they began in the
morning and could last up to five hours or until Plaintiff
either lays down for three hours or spends time in a dark
room. Id. Dr. Weir prescribed
amitriptyline to treat Plaintiff's headaches.
Id. On July 15, 2011, Dr. Weir noted that
Plaintiff's headaches had become "a little less
severe" and occurred "less often" after a
month of treatment. Id. at 421. However, Plaintiff
also reported dizziness while on the prescribed medication.
Weir referred Plaintiff for an audiology evaluation, which
occurred on December 30, 2011. Id. at 432. Plaintiff
reported that her dizziness episodes sometimes coincide with
migraines and that the episodes usually begin in the morning
and last for forty-five minutes. Id. Based on
medical test results, the evaluating physician ruled out
migraines as the source of Plaintiff's dizziness but
recommended that Plaintiff return to complete the evaluation.
Id. Sometime later, Plaintiff was prescribed
cyclobenzaprine,  which reportedly helped her pain but made
her drowsy. Id. at 534. In response, Dr. Weir
changed this prescription to methocarbamol on September 13,
2012. Id. On July 8, 2013, Plaintiff reported daily
headaches that occurred each morning. Id. at 536.
She continued taking methocarbamol daily to manage them, and
Dr. Weir ordered no additional treatment. Id.
Plaintiff continued to report severe headaches to other
treating physicians as recently as August 27, 2013, but no
treatments were recommended because these headaches were
"being managed by Dr. Weir." Id. at
Dr. Francisco Hoyos - Sleep Specialist
complaining of sleeping difficulty, underwent a sleep study
on March 20, 2012. Id. at 446. Dr. Francisco Hoyos
evaluated that sleep study. Id. Dr. Hoyos noted
Plaintiff's periodic leg movement, calculating a
"periodic limb movement index" of 29.5 per hour of
sleep. Id. On September 9, 2012, he recommended
daily walks to treat this condition. Id. at 517. He
further confirmed Plaintiff's diagnosis of sleep apnea
and opined that a CPAP machine would effectively treat the
condition. Id. He noted that Plaintiff's sleep
efficiency was 48.81% without a CPAP machine, which was below
the normal range. Id. at 445. Dr. Hoyos recommended
that Plaintiff use the machine nightly and further
recommended that Plaintiff seek weight loss, avoid alcohol at
bedtime, and avoid driving or operating heavy machinery
"until complete resolution of daytime sleepiness."
Id. at 446.
Drs. James Grim & Ann Williams - State Agency
November 1, 2011, Dr. James Grim evaluated Plaintiff's
initial disability claim and determined that she could
occasionally lift twenty pounds, frequently carry ten pounds,
stand or walk for four hours, and sit for six hours, though
Plaintiff could never climb ladders or crawl. Id. at
70. He also noted limited feeling in both of Plaintiff's
hands due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Id. at 71. Dr.
Grim found that Plaintiff was able to work because her
reported limitations conflicted with her medical treatments
and reported activities, including grocery shopping and
attending a sports camp with her grandnephew. Id.
Dr. Grim did not recommend a specific level of work that
Plaintiff could maintain, but he denied her disability claim.
See id. at 72.
10, 2012, Dr. Ann Williams evaluated Plaintiff's claim
during its reconsideration. Id. at 74. Plaintiff
reported inability to sleep and that her headaches had
worsened. Id. Dr. Williams noted that
Plaintiff's regular activities included meal preparation,
laundry, gardening, grocery shopping, attending movies, and
tutoring her grandnephew. Id. at 78. Further, she
noted that Plaintiff can walk up to half a mile. Id.
Like Dr. Grim, Dr. Williams determined that Plaintiff could
occasionally lift twenty pounds, frequently carry ten pounds,
stand or walk for four hours, and sit for six hours, but
could never climb ladders or crawl. Id. at 79-80.
Dr. Williams opined that Plaintiff could perform
"sedentary work." Id. at 82.
Dr. Elliot Aleskow - SSA Consultative Physician
December 20, 2013, Plaintiff saw Dr. Elliot Aleskow for a
consultative examination. Id. at 495. Plaintiff
reported constant arthritic pain that prevents her from
walking more than several blocks, sitting more than ten
minutes, standing more than fifteen minutes, and lifting or
carrying more than ten pounds. Id. at 496. In
evaluating Plaintiff's RFC, Dr. Aleskow noted that she
had no limitation in her range of motion, including her spine
and all four extremities. Id. at 497. Dr. Aleskow
also noted that Plaintiff could walk on her heels and toes,
could squat and rise from a squatting position, had normal
grip strength, and could perform fine motor skills without
difficulty. Id. However, Dr. Aleskow included in his
medical source statement that Plaintiff could only sit,
stand, or walk for short periods of time. Id. at
502. Specifically, Dr. Aleskow opined that, without
interruption, Plaintiff could sit up to ten minutes, stand up
to fifteen minutes, and walk up to thirty minutes.
Id. In a normal eight-hour workday, Plaintiff could
sit for two hours, stand for one hour, and walk for one hour.
Id. Plaintiff also reported "severe headaches
on a daily basis" since 2009, but she never received a
diagnosis and she stated that methocarbamol helps manage the
pain. Id. at 496. Dr. Aleskow could not determine
"the etiology of [Plaintiff's] headaches associated
with [her] dizziness, " and made no other determination
regarding them. Id. at 498.
Dr. Elizabeth Wangard - SSA Consultative
December 21, 2013, Plaintiff saw Dr. Elizabeth Wangard for a
psychological consultative examination. Id. at 537.
Plaintiff reported that she takes several daily medications
and that she has difficulty achieving a full night's
sleep. Id. at 538. She also reported that her
medication causes drowsiness and that her fatigue causes
difficulties in recalling factual details of conversations.
Id. Dr. Wangard noted Plaintiff's irritable
attitude throughout the consultation, which "may have
had a negative impact upon her performance" during the
evaluations. Id. at 540. Plaintiff discontinued the
examination before its completion, complaining of a
Wangard's limited evaluation revealed that Plaintiff
demonstrated no immediate verbal memory impairments, and
Plaintiff's perceived irritability may have affected the
results of her immediate visual spatial memory examination.
Id. at 541. Dr. Wangard found that Plaintiff
possessed mild limitations to understand and remember simple
and complex instructions, to make judgments about simple and
complex work-related decisions, and to execute complex
instructions. Id. at 544. Plaintiff also had
moderate limitations regarding her ability to interact with
the public, supervisors, and co-workers due to irritability,
resistance, and fatigue. Id. at 545.
the administrative hearing, Plaintiff testified that she
constantly experiences debilitating headaches and dizziness
throughout the day which, she claimed, require two to three
hours of daily silence in a dark room. Id. at 43-44.
She also reported that prolonged sitting makes her legs
stiffen, which necessitates elevation of her feet to chest
level for four hours each day. Id. at 45-48.
Plaintiff further stated that she only sleeps one to three
hours per night due to her sleep apnea, thus requiring daily
naps during the day. Id. at 48-49. According to
Plaintiff, her regular physical activities include helping
her mother with daily chores, helping her grandnephew with
homework, and occasionally shopping at the grocery store.
Id. at 50-51. Plaintiff alleged that her shopping
trips were short due to her inability to lift more than ten
pounds or walk more than one mile without resting. See
id. at 47, 51. Plaintiff's mother corroborated
most of Plaintiff's assertions in a separate functions
report, but added that Plaintiff's shopping trips can
last up to one-and-a-half hours and that Plaintiff also
attends a weekly sports camp to cheer for her grandnephew.
Id. at 247-48.
The VE's Testimony
administrative hearing, the ALJ obtained testimony from a VE,
who classified Plaintiff's prior work as a cashier and a
general office clerk as light work. Id. at 33. The
ALJ then asked the VE to identify any jobs in the national
economy that would be available to a hypothetical person with
physical and mental limitations and a vocational history
similar to Plaintiff's. See id. ...