Brown v. Saul
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Magistrate Judge Thomas M. DiGirolamo on 9/8/2020. (jrs, Chambers)
Case 8:19-cv-02093-TMD Document 14 Filed 09/08/20 Page 1 of 10
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
EDWARD S. B.,
ANDREW M. SAUL,
Commissioner of Social Security,
Civil No. TMD 19-2093
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING PLAINTIFF’S
ALTERNATIVE MOTION FOR REMAND
Plaintiff Edward B. seeks judicial review under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) of a
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Defendant” or the “Commissioner”)
denying his application for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Social Security
Act. Before the Court are Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment and alternative motion for
remand (ECF No. 10) and Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13).1 Plaintiff
contends that the administrative record does not contain substantial evidence to support the
Commissioner’s decision that he is not disabled. No hearing is necessary. L.R. 105.6. For the
reasons that follow, Plaintiff’s alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 10) is GRANTED.
The Fourth Circuit has noted that, “in social security cases, we often use summary judgment as
a procedural means to place the district court in position to fulfill its appellate function, not as a
device to avoid nontriable issues under usual Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 standards.”
Walls v. Barnhart, 296 F.3d 287, 289 n.2 (4th Cir. 2002). For example, “the denial of summary
judgment accompanied by a remand to the Commissioner results in a judgment under sentence
four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), which is immediately appealable.” Id.
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On April 11, 2018, Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Francine L. Applewhite held a
hearing in Washington, D.C., where Plaintiff and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified. R. at
33-79. The ALJ thereafter found on June 28, 2018, that Plaintiff was not disabled since the
application date of May 14, 2015. R. at 17-32. In so finding, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had
not engaged in substantial, gainful activity since May 14, 2015, and that his degenerative disc
disease of the cervical spine, status-post fusion surgery was a severe impairment. R. at 22. He
did not, however, have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically
equaled the severity of one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1. R. at
The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) “to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except occasional climbing of ladders,
ropes, scaffold, stairs, or ramps; occasional stooping, crouching, crawling, or kneeling.” R. at
23.2 In light of this RFC and the VE’s testimony, the ALJ found that, although he could not
perform his past relevant work, Plaintiff could perform other work in the national economy, such
as a ticket taker, sorter, or bench worker. R. at 26-27. The ALJ thus found that Plaintiff was not
disabled since May 14, 2015. R. at 27.
After the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff’s request for review, Plaintiff filed on July 17,
2019, a complaint in this Court seeking review of the Commissioner’s decision. Upon the
“Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying
of objects weighing up to 10 pounds.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b). “Even though the weight lifted
may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or
when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls.”
Case 8:19-cv-02093-TMD Document 14 Filed 09/08/20 Page 3 of 10
parties’ consent, this case was transferred to a United States Magistrate Judge for final
disposition and entry of judgment. The case then was reassigned to the undersigned. The parties
have briefed the issues, and the matter is now fully submitted.
Disability Determinations and Burden of Proof
The Social Security Act defines a disability as the inability to engage in any substantial
gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can
be expected to result in death or that has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period
of not less than twelve months.
42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(1)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(A); 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1505, 416.905. A claimant has a disability when the claimant is “not only unable to do
his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in
any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists . . . in significant numbers either in the
region where such individual lives or in several regions of the country.”
§§ 423(d)(2)(A), 1382c(a)(3)(B).
To determine whether a claimant has a disability within the meaning of the Social
Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step sequential evaluation process outlined in the
regulations. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see Barnhart v. Thomas, 540 U.S. 20, 24-25, 124
S. Ct. 376, 379-80 (2003). “If at any step a finding of disability or nondisability can be made,
the [Commissioner] will not review the claim further.” Thomas, 540 U.S. at 24, 124 S. Ct. at
379; see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The claimant has the burden of production
and proof at steps one through four. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5, 107 S. Ct.
2287, 2294 n.5 (1987); Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 291 (4th Cir. 2013).
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First, the Commissioner will consider a claimant’s work activity. If the claimant is
engaged in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant is not disabled.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i), 416.920(a)(4)(i).
Second, if the claimant is not engaged in substantial gainful activity, the Commissioner
looks to see whether the claimant has a “severe” impairment, i.e., an impairment or combination
of impairments that significantly limits the claimant’s physical or mental ability to do basic work
activities. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995); see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c),
404.1522(a), 416.920(c), 416.922(a).3
Third, if the claimant has a severe impairment, then the Commissioner will consider the
medical severity of the impairment. If the impairment meets or equals one of the presumptively
disabling impairments listed in the regulations, then the claimant is considered disabled,
regardless of age, education, and work experience.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iii),
404.1520(d), 416.920(a)(4)(iii), 416.920(d); see Radford, 734 F.3d at 293.
Fourth, if the claimant’s impairment is severe, but it does not meet or equal one of the
presumptively disabling impairments, then the Commissioner will assess the claimant’s RFC to
determine the claimant’s “ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements”
of the claimant’s past relevant work.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv), 404.1545(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4)(iv), 416.945(a)(4). RFC is a measurement of the most a claimant can do despite
his or her limitations. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 562 (4th Cir. 2006); see 20 C.F.R.
The ability to do basic work activities is defined as “the abilities and aptitudes necessary to do
most jobs.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1522(b), 416.922(b). These abilities and aptitudes include
(1) physical functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching,
carrying, or handling; (2) capacities for seeing, hearing, and speaking; (3) understanding,
carrying out, and remembering simple instructions; (4) use of judgment; (5) responding
appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and usual work situations; and (6) dealing with changes
in a routine work setting. Id. §§ 404.1522(b)(1)-(6), 416.922(b)(1)-(6); see Yuckert, 482 U.S. at
141, 107 S. Ct. at 2291.
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§§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1).
The claimant is responsible for providing evidence the
Commissioner will use to make a finding as to the claimant’s RFC, but the Commissioner is
responsible for developing the claimant’s “complete medical history, including arranging for a
consultative examination(s) if necessary, and making every reasonable effort to help [the
claimant] get medical reports from [the claimant’s] own medical sources.”
§§ 404.1545(a)(3), 416.945(a)(3). The Commissioner also will consider certain non-medical
evidence and other evidence listed in the regulations. See id. If a claimant retains the RFC to
perform past relevant work, then the claimant is not disabled.
Id. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(iv),
Fifth, if the claimant’s RFC as determined in step four will not allow the claimant to
perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove that there is
other work that the claimant can do, given the claimant’s RFC as determined at step four, age,
education, and work experience. See Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472-73 (4th Cir. 2012).
The Commissioner must prove not only that the claimant’s RFC will allow the claimant to make
an adjustment to other work, but also that the other work exists in significant numbers in the
See Walls, 296 F.3d at 290; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v),
416.920(a)(4)(v). If the claimant can make an adjustment to other work that exists in significant
numbers in the national economy, then the Commissioner will find that the claimant is not
disabled. If the claimant cannot make an adjustment to other work, then the Commissioner will
find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v).
Case 8:19-cv-02093-TMD Document 14 Filed 09/08/20 Page 6 of 10
Substantial Evidence Standard
The Court reviews an ALJ’s decision to determine whether the ALJ applied the correct
legal standards and whether the factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. See
Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). In other words, the issue before the Court “is
not whether [Plaintiff] is disabled, but whether the ALJ’s finding that [Plaintiff] is not disabled is
supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the
relevant law.” Id. The Court’s review is deferential, as “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of
Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42
U.S.C. § 405(g). Under this standard, substantial evidence is less than a preponderance but is
enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support the Commissioner’s conclusion.
See Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472; see also Biestek v. Berryhill, 587 U.S. ___, 139 S. Ct. 1148, 1154
In evaluating the evidence in an appeal of a denial of benefits, the court does “not
conduct a de novo review of the evidence,” Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir.
1986), or undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or
substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. Rather, “[t]he
duty to resolve conflicts in the evidence rests with the ALJ, not with a reviewing court.” Smith v.
Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996). When conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to
differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam).
Case 8:19-cv-02093-TMD Document 14 Filed 09/08/20 Page 7 of 10
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erroneously assessed his RFC contrary to Social Security
Ruling4 (“SSR”) 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996). Pl.’s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. 3-12,
ECF No. 10-1. Plaintiff maintains that the ALJ failed to perform properly a function-by-function
assessment of his ability to perform the physical and mental demands of work. Id. at 5. In
particular, he contends that, among other things, the ALJ “failed to set forth a narrative
discussion setting forth how the evidence supported each conclusion, citing specific medical
facts and nonmedical evidence.” Id. at 7. Plaintiff also maintains that the ALJ erroneously
evaluated his subjective complaints. Id. at 12-14. For the reasons discussed below, the Court
remands this case for further proceedings.
SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184 (July 2, 1996), explains how adjudicators should assess
RFC and instructs that the RFC
“assessment must first identify the individual’s functional limitations or
restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function
basis, including the functions” listed in the regulations. “Only after that may
[residual functional capacity] be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of
work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” The Ruling further
explains that the residual functional capacity “assessment must include a narrative
discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific
medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily
Social Security Rulings are “final opinions and orders and statements of policy and
interpretations” that the Social Security Administration has adopted. 20 C.F.R. § 402.35(b)(1).
Once published, these rulings are binding on all components of the Social Security
Administration. Heckler v. Edwards, 465 U.S. 870, 873 n.3, 104 S. Ct. 1532, 1534 n.3 (1984);
20 C.F.R. § 402.35(b)(1). “While they do not have the force of law, they are entitled to
deference unless they are clearly erroneous or inconsistent with the law.” Pass, 65 F.3d at 1204
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Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (alteration in original) (footnote omitted)
(citations omitted). The Fourth Circuit has held, however, that a per se rule requiring remand
when the ALJ does not perform an explicit function-by-function analysis “is inappropriate given
that remand would prove futile in cases where the ALJ does not discuss functions that are
‘irrelevant or uncontested.’” Id. (quoting Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2013)
(per curiam)). Rather, remand may be appropriate “where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant’s
capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where
other inadequacies in the ALJ’s analysis frustrate meaningful review.” Id. (quoting Cichocki,
729 F.3d at 177). The court in Mascio concluded that remand was appropriate because it was
“left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at his conclusions on [the claimant’s] ability to perform
relevant functions” because the ALJ had “said nothing about [the claimant’s] ability to perform
them for a full workday,” despite conflicting evidence as to the claimant’s RFC that the ALJ did
not address. Id. at 637; see Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 187-88 (4th Cir. 2016) (remanding
because ALJ erred in not determining claimant’s RFC using function-by-function analysis; ALJ
erroneously expressed claimant’s RFC first and then concluded that limitations caused by
claimant’s impairments were consistent with that RFC).
Here, the state agency medical consultants opined that Plaintiff could lift and/or carry 20
pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand and/or walk for a total of two hours, and sit
for a total of about six hours in an eight-hour workday. R. at 84, 95. Although giving “some
weight” to their opinions, the ALJ found that “[m]edical records of evidence as well as
[Plaintiff’s] own testimony fails [sic] to demonstrate the level of severity of his impairments as
being alleged. Specifically, the limitations to standing/walking are not supported.” R. at 26.
Despite finding that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform light work, the ALJ did not explain her
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conclusion that, on the basis of the evidence in the record, Plaintiff could actually perform the
tasks required by light work, such as lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time, frequently lifting
or carrying up to 10 pounds, or standing or walking for six hours in an eight-hour workday. See
SSR 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *5-6 (Jan. 1, 1983); see also Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686,
694 (4th Cir. 2018); Monroe, 826 F.3d at 190-91 (finding ALJ’s analysis that opinions were
“supported by the objective evidence” or “consistent with the objective evidence and other
opinions of record” or “supported by the objective evidence and the claimant’s subjective
complaints” precluded meaningful review because analysis was conclusory and incomplete).
The ALJ “must both identify evidence that supports [her] conclusion and ‘build an accurate and
logical bridge from [that] evidence to [her] conclusion.’” Woods, 888 F.3d at 694 (second
alteration in original) (quoting Monroe, 826 F.3d at 189). An ALJ’s failure to do so constitutes
reversible error. Lewis, 858 F.3d at 868. Because “meaningful review is frustrated when an ALJ
goes straight from listing evidence to stating a conclusion,” the Court remands this case for
further explanation as to Plaintiff’s RFC. Thomas v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d 307, 311 (4th Cir. 2019)
(citing Woods, 888 F.3d at 694).
Because the Court remands this case on other grounds, the Court need not address
Plaintiff’s remaining arguments. In any event, the ALJ also should address these other issues
raised by Plaintiff. See Tanner v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 602 F. App’x 95, 98 n.* (4th Cir. 2015)
(per curiam) (“The Social Security Administration’s Hearings, Appeals, and Litigation Law
Manual ‘HALLEX’ notes that the Appeals Council will vacate the entire prior decision of an
administrative law judge upon a court remand, and that the ALJ must consider de novo all
pertinent issues.”). Moreover, when evaluating on remand Plaintiff’s subjective complaints, the
ALJ should consider the type of activities he can perform, the extent to which he can perform
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them, and how his activities show that he can persist through an eight-hour workday. See
Woods, 888 F.3d at 694-95; Brown v. Comm’r Soc. Sec. Admin., 873 F.3d 251, 263 (4th Cir.
For the reasons stated above, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 13)
is DENIED. Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 10) is DENIED. Plaintiff’s
alternative motion for remand (ECF No. 10) is GRANTED. Defendant’s final decision is
REVERSED under the fourth sentence of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This matter is REMANDED for
further proceedings consistent with this opinion. A separate order will issue.
Date: September 8, 2020
Thomas M. DiGirolamo
United States Magistrate Judge
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