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White v. Berryhhx

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 23, 2017

JOHN WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHHX, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DEBORAH A. ROBINSON, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff John White ("Plaintiff) commenced this action against the Acting Commissioner of Social Security ("Defendant"), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking reversal of an Administrative Law Judge's decision denying Plaintiffs claim for Supplemental Social Income Benefits ("SSI") and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). See Complaint (ECFNo. I)at2. This matter was referred to the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge for full case management, and the parties jointly consented to proceed before the undersigned in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Fed.R.Civ.P. 73. See ECF Minute Entry 12/04/15; Joint Consent (ECF No. 11). Pending for determination by the court are Plaintiffs Motion for Judgment of Reversal ("Plaintiffs Motion") (ECF No. 17) and Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance ("Defendant's Motion") (ECF No. 19). Upon consideration of the motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, the administrative record ("AR") (ECF No. 6), the modified administrative record (ECF No. 14), and the entire record herein, the court will grant Plaintiff s Motion for Judgment of Reversal, deny Defendant's Motion for Judgment of Affirmance and remand the matter for further administrative proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         On December 18, 2013 and February 28, 2014, Plaintiff filed claims for Supplemental Security Income Benefits pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security Act ("the Act"), alleging disability beginning on May 15, 2013. Plaintiffs Memorandum (ECF No. 18) at 3; Defendant's Memorandum (ECF No. 20) at 2. Plaintiffs alleged impairments include: right wrist arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and bilateral rotator cuff tears. Plaintiffs Memorandum at 3. The Social Security Administration ("SSA") denied Plaintiffs disability claims initially on April 22, 2014 and upon reconsideration on August 29, 2014. Id. Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") and said hearing was held on February 24, 2015. Id. Upon review, the ALJ denied Plaintiffs claims for disability benefits. Plaintiffs request for review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council was ultimately denied on July 27, 2015. Id. at 4.

         STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

         The Social Security Act of 1935 established a framework to provide "disability insurance benefits" to eligible individuals and "supplemental security income" to individuals who have attained the age of 65, are blind, or disabled." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423, 1381, 1381a. The Act defines "disability" for non-blind individuals as "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); 20 C.F.R. § 416.905. A "disabled" individual is eligible for supplemental security income if he or she meets additional statutory requirements concerning income and resources. 42 U.S.C. § 1382(a). The SSA has promulgated regulations, pursuant to the Act, outlining a five-step process for determining disability of adults. .See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1520, 416.920.

         First, the agency evaluates whether the claimant is "doing substantial gainful activity." If so, the agency concludes that the claimant is not disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), (b); 416.920(a)(4)(i), (b). Second, if the claimant is not engaging in substantial gainful activity, the agency determines whether the claimant has a "severe medically determinable physical or medical impairment that meets the duration requirement ... or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement .. .." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(H), 416.920(a)(4)(ii). Third, if deemed severe, the next question becomes whether the impairment "meets or equals one of the listings" in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a) (emphasis added). The "listing" referred to in the statute is composed of a listing of impairments which "describe for each of the major body systems impairments that [the agency] considers to be severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience." Id. Fourth, if the claimant's impairment does not satisfy one of the listings, the agency assesses the claimant's "residual functional capacity" to see whether the claimant is still capable of performing "past relevant work." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If so, the claimant is not disabled. Id. Residual functional capacity is "the most [an individual] can still do despite [his or her] limitations." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545. Fifth, and finally, if the claimant is unable to perform his or her "past relevant work, " the agency evaluates the claimant's "residual functional capacity and . .. age, education, and work experience to see if [he or she] can make adjustment to other work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), (g); 416.920(a)(4)(v), (g). If the claimant cannot make such an adjustment, the agency finds that the individual is "disabled." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g)(1), 416.920(g)(1).

         Generally, the SSA "give[s] more weight to opinions from . . . treating sources than to the opinion of a source who had not examined the [claimant]." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1). A treating source's opinion is given "controlling weight" if it is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence." Social Security Ruling 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 (July 2, 1996); accord20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. "A treating physician's report is binding on the fact-finder unless contradicted by substantial evidence." Settles v. Colvin, 121 F.Supp.3d 163, 169 (D.D.C. 2015) (citing Espinosa v. Colvin, 953 F.Supp.2d 25, 32 (D.D.C. 2013)). When evaluating the appropriate weight to give to a treating source's opinion that is not entitled to "controlling weight" due to inconsistencies with other evidence in the record, the ALJ shall "apply the factors listed in paragraphs (c)(2)(i) and (c)(2)(ii) of this section, as well as the factors in paragraphs (c)(3) through (c)(6) of this section in determining the weight to give the opinion" which include: the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination, the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, the presentation of medical signs and laboratory findings in support a treating physician's medical opinion, consistency of the opinion, the physician's specialization and any other factors which tend to support or contradict the opinion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A claimant may seek judicial review in a district court of "any final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security made after a hearing to which he was a party . .. ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Commissioner's ultimate determination will not be disturbed "if it is based on substantial evidence in the record and correctly applies the relevant legal standards." Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 999 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (citations omitted). In other words, a "district court's review of the [SSA] findings of fact is limited to whether those findings are supported by substantial evidence.'" Broyles v. Astrue, 910 F.Supp.2d 55, 60 (D.D.C. 2012) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as "a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Butler, 353 F.3d at 999 (internal quotation marks omitted) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). The test requires "more than a scintilla, but can be satisfied by something less than a preponderance of evidence." Id. (citation omitted) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has observed that "[s]ubstantial-evidence review is highly deferential to the agency fact-finder, " Rossello ex rel Rossello v. Astrue, 529 F.3d 1181, 1185 (D.C. Cir. 2008), and that "a reviewing judge must uphold the ALJ's legal 'determination if it ... is not tainted by an error of law.'" Jeffries v. Astrue, 723 F.Supp.2d 185, 189 (D.D.C. 2010) (quoting Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1987)); see also Nicholson v. Soc. Sec. Admin., 895 F.Supp.2d 101, 103 (D.D.C. 2012) (noting that the inquiry upon judicial review is whether the ALJ has analyzed all evidence and has sufficiently explained the weight he had given to obviously probative exhibits"); Guthrie v. Astrue, 604 F.Supp.2d 104, 112 (D.D.C. 2009) (noting that the court is "not to review the case 'de novo' or reweigh the evidence). The plaintiff bears the "burden of demonstrating that the Commissioner's decision [was] not based on substantial evidence or that incorrect legal standards were applied." Muldrow v. Astrue, No. 11-1385, 2012 WL 2877697, at *6 (D.D.C. July 11, 2012) (citation omitted); see also Charles v. Astrue, 854 F.Supp.2d 22, 27-28 (D.D.C. 2012).

         THE ALJ's DETERMINATION

         After consideration of the administrative record, and upon application of the five-step process outlined in 20 CFR § 404.1520(a) of the Social Security Act, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the definition provided by the SSA and thus was not eligible to receive disability benefits. AR (ECF No. 14-2) at 24.

         At Step One of the analysis, the ALJ found that Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of the Act and opined that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since the alleged onset date of his disability, despite Plaintiffs testimony that he had performed intermittent work as an independent contractor, ...


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