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Magee v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

January 25, 2019

AMANDA MAGEE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Amit P. Mehta United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Amanda Magee challenges an Administrative Law Judge's (“ALJ”) decision denying her Supplemental Security Income Benefits. She raises two errors. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ improperly relied on contradictory evidence from a vocational expert. Second, she maintains that the ALJ violated the “treating physician rule, ” which requires judges to give significant weight to a treating physician's opinion. The court agrees with Plaintiff on her first claim, but not her second. The ALJ relied on vocational expert testimony that appears to be contradictory, and so the court remands to the agency on this limited issue. The court does not agree, however, with Plaintiff's challenge to the ALJ's application of the treating physician rule. The parties' motions therefore are granted in part and denied in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is a 35-year-old living in Washington, D.C. On April 22, 2013, she filed an application for Supplemental Security Income Benefits, alleging disability based on a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. See Administrative Record, ECF Nos. 4-2 to 4-17 [hereinafter R.], at 15, 23, 849. The Social Security Administration initially denied Plaintiff's application on July 12, 2013, and did so again on reconsideration on September 23, 2013. Id. at 23. On February 21, 2014, Plaintiff appeared at a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), see id. at 23, who found Plaintiff not disabled, see Id. at 32.

         Plaintiff then sought review in this District Court, where she found success. A magistrate judge determined that the ALJ had failed to sufficiently develop the record with a mental health consultative examination. Id. at 456-60. Her success was short-lived, however. On remand, even taking account of Plaintiff's mental health limitations, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim for benefits, finding that she was not disabled and that she could perform light, unskilled work. Id. at 396. Relying on a vocational expert's testimony, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. Id. at 395-96.

         Plaintiff filed this case on September 20, 2017. See Compl., ECF No. 1. On February 13, 2018, she filed a Motion for Judgment of Reversal. See Pl.'s Mot. for Judg. of Reversal, ECF No. 6 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mot.]; Pl.'s Mem. in Support of Pl.'s Mot., ECF 6-1 [hereinafter Pl.'s Mem.]. Defendant responded with a Motion for Judgment of Affirmance on April 30, 2018. See Def.'s Mot. for Judg. of Aff. and Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Judg. of Reversal, ECF No. 8 [hereinafter Def.'s Mot.]. Those motions are ripe for consideration.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), individuals denied benefits may seek review in a federal district court. “The court must uphold the Secretary's determination if it is supported by substantial evidence and is not tainted by an error of law.” Smith v. Bowen, 826 F.2d 1120, 1121 (D.C. Cir. 1986). Substantial evidence is “more than a mere scintilla”; it is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citations and quotations omitted). To determine whether the Commissioner, acting through an ALJ, reached a decision supported by substantial evidence, the court must give “careful scrutiny of the entire record.” Brown v. Bowen, 794 F.2d 703, 705 (D.C. Cir. 1986).

         IV. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff challenges two aspects of the ALJ's decision. First, she asserts that the ALJ improperly relied on contradictory testimony from the vocational expert. See Pl.'s Mem. at 7-11, 16-17. Second, she contends that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule by failing to give proper weight to evidence from her treating physician, Dr. Sharon Dowell, a rheumatologist. Id. at 11-16.[1] The court takes these issues in turn.

         A. Vocational Expert's Contradiction

         The Commissioner has established a five-step process to determine disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Plaintiff's contention concerning the ALJ's reliance on the vocational expert's testimony pertains to step five, which places the burden on the Commissioner “to demonstrate that the claimant is able to perform ‘other work' based on a consideration of her ‘residual functional capacity' (RFC), age, education and past work experience.” Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004).

         In this case, the ALJ determined that the Commissioner had carried her burden at step five. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had an RFC “to perform light, unskilled work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(a) except sit/stand alternatively provided that she is not off task more than 10 percent of the workday; use of a hand-held mechanically assistive device, namely a cane, used for walking rarely; understand, remember, and carry out instructions that are for simple, routine tasks occasionally; make simple decisions ...


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