United States District Court, District of Columbia
MEMORANDUM OPINION, GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION
FOR JUDGMENT OF REVERSAL IN PART RE DOCUMENT NO. 26
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Magistrate Judge Robinson's Report and
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.
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.
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. ...