Robinson v. Astrue
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Thomas M. DiGirolamo on 8/19/2013. (ebs2, Deputy Clerk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil Action No. TMD 12-1541M
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING DEFENDANT’S
MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Kenneth Robinson (“Plaintiff” or “Claimant”) brought this action under 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) for judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration (“Commissioner”), denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”)
and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act,
42 U.S.C.§§ 401-433, 1381-83(c). Before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary
Judgment (Pl.’s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 19) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
(Def.’s Mot. Summ., ECF No. 20). No hearing is deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md.).
For the reasons presented below, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.
Carolyn W. Colvin became the Acting Commissioner of Social Security on February 14, 2013.
Pursuant to Rule 25(d) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Carolyn W. Colvin should be
substituted for Michael J. Astrue as Defendant in this lawsuit.
I. Procedural History
Plaintiff protectively filed his applications on August 28, 2008 alleging disability since
May 30, 2008 (subsequently amended to January 1, 2009) due to nerve damage in his right
hand/arm, carpel tunnel syndrome, a lower arm crushing incident, hypertension, a kidney
condition, a liver condition and degenerative spine. R. at 35-36, 118-24, 127-30, 139, 145. His
claims were denied initially and on reconsideration. R. at 54-55, 56-57, 58-62, 66-69. On
October 1, 2010, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) at which
Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at 27-53. Plaintiff was represented by
counsel. In a decision October 28, 2010, the ALJ denied Plaintiff’s request for benefits. R. at
14-22. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review rendering the ALJ’s decision
the final decision subject to judicial review. R. at 1-3.
II. ALJ’s Decision
The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff’s claims for DIB and SSI using the sequential processes set
forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. At the first step, the ALJ determined that Claimant
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his amended onset date. At step two, the
ALJ determined that Claimant suffered from the following severe impairments: status post right
carpal tunnel release and degenerative joint disease. At step three, the ALJ found that his
impairments did not meet or equal the Listings of Impairments set forth in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404,
subpt, P, app. 1. The ALJ concluded at step four that Plaintiff is unable to perform his past
relevant work. At step five, the ALJ concluded that, given his residual functional capacity
(“RFC”), Claimant was capable of performing jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy. Accordingly, he concluded that Claimant was not disabled. R. at 14-22.
III. Standard of Review
The role of this court on review is to determine whether substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner’s decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards.
42 U.S.C. § 405(g)(1994 & Supp. V 1999); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1202 (4th Cir. 1995);
Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence 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) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197,
229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla, but less than a preponderance, of the evidence
presented. Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). It is such evidence that a
reasonable mind might accept to support a conclusion, and must be sufficient to justify a refusal
to direct a verdict if the case were before a jury. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (quoting Laws v.
Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). This court cannot try the case de novo or
resolve evidentiary conflicts, but rather must affirm a decision supported by substantial
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ (1) erred in his hypothetical to the VE; (2) failed in his
evaluation of Claimant’s mental impairment; and (3) failed in his consideration of Claimant’s
The opinion of a vocational expert is not helpful if it is not delivered “in response to
proper hypothetical questions which fairly set out all of [a] claimant's impairments.” Walker v.
Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1989) (emphasis added). As the Fourth Circuit has held a
hypothetical question is unimpeachable if it “adequately reflect[s]” a residual functional
capacity for which the ALJ had sufficient evidence. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 659
Here, Plaintiff takes issue with ALJ’s hypothetical to the extent it only requires the
individual to “avoid constant reaching and constant fine and gross manipulation with the right
upper extremity.” R. at 50. He contends that the hypothetical should have gone much further
restricting the individual to only one-handed jobs. He cites to a Case Development Sheet in
which an unidentified SSA worker cited “one handed jobs” Claimant could perform. R. at 324.
Based on this evidence, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ should have adopted this finding and
included it in the hypothetical to the VE. The Court disagrees.
First, it is clear that the ALJ’s hypothetical mirrors the ALJ’s RFC which specifically
states that Claimant must “avoid constant reaching and constant fine/gross manipulation with
the right upper extremity.” R. at 18. The Court finds that substantial evidence supports this
RFC finding; and accordingly that the hypothetical was proper in this respect. The ALJ
recognized that Claimant sustained a work related injury to his right hand in August, 2005
which was originally diagnosed as crush injury. R. at 16. Subsequently, he was rediagnosed
with carpal tunnel syndrome for which he underwent a release operation on February 26, 2007.
R. at 199. Over the course of the year following surgery, Claimant reported with complaints of
pain, numbness and sensitivity although he failed to take the prescribed medication, failed to
follow up on the physical therapy recommendation and did not report, at times, for three or five
months between visits. R. at 271-76. Once Claimant began to take the prescribed Neurontin
and attended physical therapy, he felt better and was reported to be working. R. at 270. In
April, 2008, he was reported to have full range of motion. Id. In June, 2008, while Plaintiff
continued to experience some numbness, he continued to have good range of motion and
satisfactory strength. R. at 269. At that time, Dr. Dorin noted a successful surgery, a decrease
in symptoms and that he could go back to his regular work activity except to avoid freezing
temperatures. R, at 269. Nowhere did Dr. Dorin suggest that Claimant be limited to onehanded work. See also R. at 345 (July, 2008 a medical examination revealing positive Tinel’s
and Phalen’s tests but full range of motion and an x-ray of his right wrist which was within
The ALJ noted that during a consultative examination conducted in November, 2008 by
Dr. Sosanya, Claimant continued to complain of poor grip and tingling sensation which was
worse in his three lateral fingertips.R. at 17, 305. However, Dr. Sosanya observed that
Claimant’s right hand grip was only “mildly reduced when compared to the left hand.” R. at
307. He also reported that Claimant again had a full range of wrist motion and normal deep
tendon flexes. Id. The ALJ further noted that Dr. Stern indicated Claimant could not use his
right hand for simple grasping, pushing or fine manipulation and this did not prevent him from
working. R. at 20, 319, 321.
The ALJ considered all of this evidence as well as Claimant’s testimony. R. at 18-19
He afforded great weight to the opinion of Dr. Dorin who performed the carpal tunnel release
surgery. In addition to the findings discussed above, Dr. Dorin also opined that Claimant could
lift between 10 and 20 pounds and can work as long as he avoids tools such as a hammer. R. at
19, 335-36. The ALJ also noted that while Dr. Stern indicated that he could not use his right
hand repetitively for simple grasping, pushing and fine manipulation, that this is consistent with
the RFC. R. at 20, 319. To the extent there may be some evidence which would indicate
Claimant might have more restriction than that found by the ALJ, it is not the job of the Court
to reweigh the evidence and the Court finds that the evidence cited above and relied upon by the
ALJ constitutes substantial evidence to support his hypothetical to the VE as well as his RFC
limitation with respect to his right hand. See Smith v. Commissioner of Social Sec, Civil No.
4:09cv80, 2010 WL 1640271 at *3 (E.D. Va. April 22, 2010).2
Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ erred in failing to ask the VE to provide DOT numbers for
the occupations he listed. As this Court has previously stated, the regulations do not require the
VE or the ALJ to provide DOT numbers. See Knox v. Astrue, Civil Action No. TMD 10–
11252011 WL 5513206, at *4 (D. Md. November 10, 2010); see also Rollins v. Astrue, C.A.
No. 8:08–2663–HMH–BHH, 2009 WL 5195287 at* 15 (D.S.C. Dec. 22, 2009) (“As to the
plaintiff's suggestion that the ALJ erred in failing to provide specific DOT numbers for the jobs
recommended, it is unpersuasive. The regulations do not indicate that the VE or the ALJ are
required to provide DOT numbers, but rather that the ALJ may “take administrative notice of
reliable job information” such as that information contained in the DOT); Taylor v. Astrue,
2009 WL 50156, at *12, n. 6 (E.D.N.C. January 07, 2009); Compton v. Colvin, No. 11 C 8305,
2013 WL 870606 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 7, 2013) (“even with the inconsistencies and the failure to
provide the DOT codes, the ALJ was within his rights to rely on the VE's testimony because the
Social Security regulations do not require the VE to rely on classifications in the DOT.”);
Patterson v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., No. 1:09–cv–413, 2010 WL 774678, *3 (W.D. Mich.
Mar.1, 2010) (“The absence of specific DOT code numbers does not undermine the substantial
evidence supporting the ALJ's decision.”); Williams v. Astrue, No. 08–cv–13470, 2009 WL
2840497, *11 (E.D. Mich. July 28, 2009) (R & R adopted by 2009 WL 2840499 (Aug. 31,
2009)) (rejecting argument that the “ALJ should have required the VE to provide the DOT
Plaintiff next argues the ALJ failed to follow the proper procedure in analyzing his
mental impairment. In addition to the five-step analysis discussed above and outlined in 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520, the Commissioner has promulgated additional regulations governing
evaluations of the severity of mental impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a. These regulations
require application of a “special technique” (“psychiatric review technique”) at the second and
third steps of the five-step framework, Schmidt v. Astrue, 496 F.3d 833, 844 n. 4 (7th Cir.2007),
and at each level of administrative review. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(a). This technique requires
the reviewing authority to determine first whether the claimant has a “medically determinable
mental impairment.” § 404.1520a(b)(1). If the claimant is found to have such an impairment,
the reviewing authority must “rate the degree of functional limitation resulting from the
impairment(s) in accordance with paragraph (c),” § 404.1520a(b)(2), which specifies four broad
functional areas: (1) activities of daily living; (2) social functioning; (3) concentration,
codes associated with each of the jobs she listed”); Squires v. Astrue, No. 07–5096, 2008 WL
1776941, *8 (W.D. Ark. Mar.24, 2008) (R & R) (rejecting argument that ALJ committed
reversible error when relying on VE testimony when VE failed to assign DOT code to past
relevant work). The Court also notes that counsel attended the administrative hearing and
presumably had the opportunity to inquire of the VE as to specific DOT numbers, but declined
to do so. See Rollins, 2009 WL 5195287 at * 15.
persistence, or pace; and (4) episodes of decompensation. § 404.1520a(c)(3). According to the
regulations, if the degree of limitation in each of the first three areas is rated “mild” or better,
and no episodes of decompensation are identified, then the reviewing authority generally will
conclude that the claimant's mental impairment is not “severe” and will deny benefits. §
404.1520a(d)(1). If the claimant's mental impairment is severe, the reviewing authority will first
compare the relevant medical findings and the functional limitation ratings to the criteria of
listed mental disorders in order to determine whether the impairment meets or is equivalent in
severity to any listed mental disorder. § 404.1520a(d)(2). If so, the claimant will be found to be
disabled. If not, the reviewing authority will then assess the claimant's residual functional
capacity. § 404.1520a(d)(3).
Contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, the ALJ was not required to perform the psychiatric
review technique. The ALJ is only required to evaluate impairments for which there is “ample
evidence in the record to support a determination that the claimant's impairments meets or
equals one of the listed impairments .” Ketcher v. Apfel, 68 F.Supp.2d 629, 645 (D.Md.1999) (
citing Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168 (4th Cir.1986)) (internal quotations omitted); see also
Baker v. Chater, 957 F.Supp. 75, 79 (D.Md.1996) (“The necessary implication of [20 C.F.R. §
404.1520a], of course, is that no PRTF is required if there is no evidence of mental
impairment.”). Moreover, a claimant's own statements will not suffice. Byrd v. Apfel, 168 F.3d
481, 1998 WL 911718, at *3 (4th Cir. Dec.31, 1998). Instead, a claimant must establish his
mental impairments through medical evidence. Id.
The ALJ specifically found that the claimant’s depression does not cause more than a
minimal limitation on Claimant’s ability to perform basic mental work demands and is therefore
non-severe. R. at 17. At the outset, the Court notes that Claimant did not allege depression or
any other mental impairment as a basis for disability. R. at 139. In support of this finding, the
ALJ noted that despite Claimant’s testimony that he sees a psychiatrist every month and goes to
therapy every week, Plaintiff did not formally request a psychological evaluation nor did he
provide any documentation of psychiatric treatment despite the fact that the ALJ left the record
open for fourteen days for such a submission R. at 17. Here, the only medical evidence in the
record is an isolated reference in a disability report in which SSA personnel may have found
Plaintiff deficient in understanding, coherency and concentrating R. at 146. The Court does not
find this evidence sufficient to trigger the ALJ’s duty to apply the psychiatric review technique.
The record does not contain any treatment or other medical evidence of depression. While Dr.
Dorin noted that he “believe[d] [Claimant] has been seeing Dr. Alan Brody for some psychiatric
problems,” R. at 337, as mentioned above, Plaintiff submitted no evidence of any psychiatric
treatment. Plaintiff argues that the ALJ’s RFC which included moderate limitations in
concentration, persistence and pace is somehow inconsistent with his finding that his mental
impairment is not severe. To the contrary, the ALJ was clear that in the interest of giving
Claimant the benefit of the doubt, he included such limitations “due to side effects of pain and
medication . . .” R. at 17 (emphasis added). This finding does not lend support to Plaintiff’s
argument that he had a mental impairment of sufficient severity to trigger evaluation under the
“special technique” discussed above. Claimant has not meet his burden in establishing a mental
impairment and the ALJ did not err in his evaluation.
Claimant’s Work Record
Finally, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ somehow erred by not considering his work record.
The Court agrees with the Commissioner that the ALJ is not specifically required to comment
on what may be a positive work record in his credibility analysis. See Watson v. Astrue, 2012
WL 4026041, at *9 *E.D.N.C. September 12, 2012). Moreover, Plaintiff does not assert and
the Court is unaware of how the failure of the ALJ in this respect would somehow change the
outcome. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s argument is without merit.
Based on the foregoing, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. A
separate order shall issue.
Date: August 19, 2013
THOMAS M. DIGIROLAMO
United States Magistrate Judge
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