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Perkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

May 7, 2019

NORMA W. PERKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERYHILL, in her official capacity as Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, Defendant,

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TREVOR N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         Norma Perkins filed this case seeking review of the Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) decision to deny her application for disability benefits. She suffers from various mental health disorders and a right-foot deformity, and she claims that these maladies have left her unable to work. The SSA considered and rejected these claims three times. The third denial came after a hearing conducted by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”).

         Ms. Perkins now seeks a reversal of the ALJ's decision. The SSA objects. The case was referred to a Magistrate Judge who considered the parties' arguments. She recommends that the Court grant Ms. Perkins's motion and remand her case for an immediate award of benefits. Because it finds that the ALJ's decision violated the “treating physician rule, ” the Court will remand the case. But as the record does not show a clear entitlement to benefits, an immediate award is improper. The case will therefore be returned to the ALJ for additional fact-finding.

         I.

         A.

         To qualify for Supplemental Security Income, a claimant must establish that she is “disabled.” 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(a)(1)(D), 1382(a)(1). A “disability” is the “inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable 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). A person is disabled, in other words, only if her “physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.” Id. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         The SSA uses a five-step sequential evaluation process to assess a claimant's alleged disability. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. The claimant bears the burden of proof on the first four steps. Butler v. Barnhart, 353 F.3d 992, 997 (D.C. Cir. 2004). The first step requires the claimant to show that she is not now engaged in substantial gainful employment activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Second, she must show that she has a “severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment” that “significantly limits” her ability to do basic work activities. Id. Step three requires a showing that her impairment “meets or equals” one of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 of the SSA's regulations. Id. If this is established, the SSA concludes the claimant is disabled and the inquiry ends. Id. If not, the analysis proceeds to the fourth step. At this stage, the SSA considers the claimant's “residual functional capacity, ” and she must show that she cannot “still do [her] past relevant work.” Id. Such a showing triggers the final step of the analysis. Step five requires the SSA to determine whether the claimant can make “an adjustment to other work” based on her residual functional capacity. If she cannot, she is disabled. Id.

         B.

         Ms. Perkins applied for Supplemental Security Income in 2013. Compl. 2, ECF No. 1. She alleged that she is “disabled by the combined functional limitations resulting from her bipolar II disorder . . ., post-traumatic stress disorder . . ., medication side effects from treatment for these disorders, and a right-foot deformity from third-degree burns as a child.” Id. The SSA denied her claim initially and upon reconsideration. ECF No. 7-2 at 20.[1]

         Ms. Perkins then requested a hearing before an ALJ. See Compl. 2; ECF No. 7-2 at 20. She testified at this hearing, and the ALJ also heard from a vocational expert. ECF No. 7-2 at 20-30. After considering the evidence before him, the ALJ denied Ms. Perkins's application. Id. at 30.

         In his decision, the ALJ used the five-step evaluation framework. First, he found that Ms. Perkins “has not engaged in substantial gainful activity” since she filed her application for benefits. Id. at 22. Next, he determined that Ms. Perkins's right foot deformity and mental health disorders are “severe.” Id. at 22. He added that these disabilities “limit [her] ability to perform the strength and non-strength demands of basic work activities.” Id.

         But, at step three, the ALJ found that the severity of Ms. Perkins's conditions did not “meet or medically equal” the severity of any of the listed impairments in Appendix 1 of the SSA's regulations. Id. at 23. He explained that, to rise to the level of the listed impairments, Ms. Perkins's mental disorders “must result in at least two of the following:

• Marked restriction of activities of daily living;
• Marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning;
• Marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or
• Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration.”

Id. (citing the requirements of the listed mental disorders described in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P). A “marked” difficulty or restriction is “more than moderate but less than extreme.” Id.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Perkins had not shown marked limitations in any these four categories. Id. He concluded, for instance, that in “activities of daily living, the claimant has mild restriction, ” as she “has no problem with her personal care, . . . [and] can also use the bus, shop in stores, watch television, and spend time with others daily.” Id. Similarly, the ALJ found that Ms. Perkins had “moderate, ” but not marked, difficulties in social functioning and in ...


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