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McCraw v. Berryhill

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 5, 2019

SYLVIA MARIE MCCRAW, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION, GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR JUDGMENT OF REVERSAL IN PART RE DOCUMENT NO. 26

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Sylvia Marie McCraw applied for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income in 2013. After an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) rejected her application, Ms. McCraw sought review of that decision from this Court. On March 22, 2019, Magistrate Judge Robinson found that the ALJ failed to properly apply the treating physician rule and recommended that this Court remand the action to the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) for the immediate award of benefits. This Court agrees with Magistrate Judge Robinson's ultimate conclusion that the ALJ failed to adequately explain why he accorded aspects of the treating physician's opinion little weight. However, this Court disagrees that the proper remedy is to award benefits. Instead, this Court grants Defendant's Motion for Reversal in part and remands this case to the SSA for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         A. Administrative Proceedings

         In April 2013, Ms. McCraw applied for disability insurance benefits and supplementary security income. See R. & R. at 1, ECF No. 25. To qualify for either benefit under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, a claimant must establish that he or she is disabled. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 401 et seq.; 42 U.S.C. §§ 1381 et seq. Ms. McCraw alleged that she was disabled because of “‘spinal pain in the neck and low back[ ];' ‘spasms in the back, arms, and neck, needing to walk with a cane, experiencing numbness in the right leg and foot, and having a hard time using the left leg[ ];' inability to sleep for ‘[more than] [two] hours at a time because of pain[, ]' and bladder incontinence.” R. & R. at 2 (quoting Judge Krasnow's Decision at 19, ECF No. 12-2). The SSA denied Ms. McCraw's claims for benefits initially and upon reconsideration. See Id. Ms. McCraw then requested a hearing before an ALJ to review her claims. Id.

         An SSA ALJ uses a five-step process to determine whether an applicant is disabled under the Social Security Act. See Espinosa v. Colvin, 953 F.Supp.2d 25, 31 (D.D.C. 2013). First, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is “engaged in substantive gainful activity.” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i)). If the claimant is engaged in such activity, the claimant is not disabled under the Act. If the claimant survives step one, the ALJ must then determine if the claimant has a “‘medically determinable physical or mental impairment' that is proven ‘by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.'” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii)). If the ALJ finds that the claimant has such a disability at step two, then the ALJ proceeds to step three and determines if the impairment is sufficiently severe. An impairment is severe if the severity of the impairment “meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404.” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii)). If the claimant meets both of these requirements, then the ALJ evaluates what the claimant's residual functional capacity is given the claimant's limitations. Id. “‘Residual function capacity' is ‘the most [the claimant] can still do despite [the] limitations' caused by the impairment.” Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 404.1545(a)(1)). The ALJ uses the residual functional capacity to evaluate whether the claimant is unable to occupy a prior job at step four, and, if the claimant is unable to occupy said job, then whether the claimant can “adapt[ ] to ‘other work that exists in the national economy'” at step five. Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v)). If a claim survives these five steps, then the claimant is eligible for benefits. See id.

         Here, ALJ Michael Krasnow found that Ms. McCraw's claims failed at steps three and four. See Judge Krasnow's Decision at 17-22. While ALJ Krasnow concluded that “claimant has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease with radiculopathy and essential hypertension, ” the ALJ found that these severe impairments did not “meet[ ] or medically equal[ ] the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” Id. at 17-18. As a result, Ms. McCraw's claims fail at step three. Additionally, ALJ Krasnow concluded that Ms. McCraw has the “functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b)” with several exceptions. Id. at 18.

         In making this determination, the ALJ considered the medical opinions of two state agency medical consultants, Drs. Ann Williams and Veronica Bedeau, as well as the opinion of Ms. McCraw's treating physician, Dr. Christopher Kalhorn. Id. at 20-21. ALJ Krasnow accorded “great weight” to Dr. Kalhorn's assessment of Ms. McCraw's impairments with several exceptions. Id. at 21. First, ALJ Krasnow gave minimal weight to Dr. Kalhorn's comments about Ms. McCraw's ability to work because “Dr. Kalhorn was not able to provide a clear answer and did not define the frequency of likely absences caused by a flare of back pain.” Id. ALJ Krasnow also afforded little weight to Dr. Kalhorn's opinion that Ms. McCraw could “lift and carry . . . less than 10 pounds” because the doctor had previously found that “the claimant could lift and carry 10 pounds frequently.” Id. Additionally, ALJ Krasnow utilized Drs. Williams and Bedeau's assessment about Ms. McCraw's ability to stand because they “identified more restrictive limitations in terms of standing” than Dr. Kalhorn identified. Id. Specifically, the ALJ concluded that it was Dr. Kalhorn's opinion that Ms. McCraw could stand only six hours, whereas it was Drs. Williams and Bedeau's opinion that Ms. McCraw could stand for four hours. Id. at 20-21.

         Taken together, ALJ Krasnow found that Ms. McCraw would be able to perform light work if she was not required to “stand and walk [more than] 4 hours in an 8-hour day, ” “sit 6 hours in an 8-hour day, ” “occasionally climb ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, ” or “climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds.” Id. at 18. Ms. McCraw must also “avoid even moderate exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, wetness, and hazards, such as dangerous machinery.” Id. Given Ms. McCraw's functional capacity, ALJ Krasnow found that Ms. McCraw was capable of working as a telemarketer, a job she previously held. See Id. at 22. Because Ms. McCraw's claims failed at step four, ALJ Krasnow concluded that Ms. McCraw was not disabled under the Act and denied her claim for benefits. Id. ALJ Krasnow had no occasion to assess Ms. McCraw's disability claim at step five. The SSA Appeals Council affirmed the ALJ's decision on March 28, 2017. Id. at 1-3.

         B. Magistrate Judge Robinson's Report and Recommendations

         On May 26, 2017, Ms. McCraw sought this Court's review of ALJ Kransow's decision in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), 28 U.S.C. § 1361, and 42 U.S.C. 1383(c)(3). See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. On December 1, 2017, Ms. McCraw asked this Court to reverse the agency's judgment on the grounds that the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence in the record. See generally Pl.'s Mot. J. Reversal, ECF No. 18. Additionally, Ms. McCraw argued that the ALJ failed to appropriately apply the treating physician rule. See Id. at 10-15. Had the ALJ applied the treating physician rule, Ms. McCraw argues that the ALJ would have found that substantial evidence supported the award of disability benefits. Id. Defendant then moved for affirmance of the ALJ's decision. See generally Def.'s Mot. J. Affirmance, ECF No. 21. Defendant argued that the ALJ appropriately applied the treating physician rule and correctly concluded that the weight of the evidence supported denying Ms. McCraw's claims. Id. at 9-12.

         This Court referred the case to Magistrate Judge Robinson for full case management. On March 22, 2019, Magistrate Judge Robinson issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that the ALJ's opinion be reversed and remanded for the award of benefits. See R. & R. at 12. Because “the ALJ offered only a conclusory sentence fragment” to explain his reasoning, Magistrate Judge Robinson concluded that the ALJ had failed to appropriately apply the treating physician rule. Id. at 10. Had the treating physician rule been appropriately applied, Magistrate Judge Robinson found that Plaintiff would be entitled to the immediate award of benefits. Id. at 11-12.

         Defendant objects to the Magistrate Judge's Report and Recommendation on two grounds. See generally Def.'s Obj. R. & R., ECF No. 26. First, Defendant contends that the ALJ made no error in applying the treating physician rule. Id. at 2-6. Instead, Defendant maintains that the ALJ's decision was supported by substantial evidence, and therefore should be affirmed. Id. In the alternative, Defendant argues that the case should not be remanded for the issuance of benefits. Id. at 6-8. Defendant argues that even if the ALJ misapplied the treating physician rule, the appropriate disposition is to remand the case for further proceedings because it is not clear from the record that disability benefits should be awarded. Id. Plaintiff responds by urging this Court to adopt the Report and Recommendation in full. See Pl.'s Reply Obj. ...


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