United States District Court, District of Columbia
NORMA W. PERKINS, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERYHILL, in her official capacity as Acting Commissioner of the U.S. Social Security Administration, Defendant,
N. McFADDEN, U.S.D.J.
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”).
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.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.”
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
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.
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 ...