STACY L. LEWIS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant-Appellee.
Argued: January 24, 2017
from the United States District Court for the District of
Maryland, at Baltimore. Stephanie A. Gallagher, Magistrate
Gregory Dolin, UNIVERSITY OF BALTIMORE SCHOOL OF LAW,
Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.
Hinsley, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Baltimore, Maryland,
E. Ellis, Third Year Law Student, UNIVERSITY OF BALTIMORE
SCHOOL OF LAW, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.
Rosenstein, United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED
STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore, Maryland; Aparna V. Srinivasan,
Special Assistant United States Attorney, SOCIAL SECURITY
ADMINISTRATION, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.
AGEE, KEENAN, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.
and remanded with instructions by published opinion. Judge
Agee wrote the opinion, in which Judge Keenan and Judge
L. Lewis appeals the district court's decision upholding
the Social Security Administration's denial of her
application for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income. Because the administrative law
judge ("ALJ") did not give appropriate weight to
the opinions of Lewis' treating physicians and failed to
adequately explain his decision to deny her benefits, we
vacate the judgment of the district court and remand for
October 4, 2010, Lewis filed applications for disability
insurance benefits and supplemental security income with the
Acting Social Security Commissioner (the
"Commissioner"), alleging a disability beginning on
March 9, 2009, due to obesity, degenerative disc disease,
degenerative joint disease/thoracic outlet syndrome, diabetes
mellitus, lupus, and depression with complaints of anxiety.
Because the Commissioner denied Lewis' initial
application and request for reconsideration, Lewis requested
a hearing before an ALJ. The hearing was granted, but the ALJ
denied Lewis' applications. Lewis then requested review
by the Appeals Council, which was denied. At that point, the
ALJ's decision became the final decision of the
Lewis filed a complaint in district court against the
Commissioner pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Considering
the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, a United
States magistrate judge issued a letter opinion observing that
"Ms. Lewis is correct that, if the ALJ had credited her
testimony, he likely would have concluded that she is unable
to work." J.A. 15. Nevertheless, the magistrate judge
ultimately denied Lewis' motion, granted the
Commissioner's motion, and affirmed the
Commissioner's final decision denying benefits.
timely appealed, and this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
provide context for our consideration of this case, we begin
with an overview of the sequential evaluation that ALJs must
follow when making disability determinations. The relevant
Social Security Administration regulations set forth a
comprehensive five-step process:
[T]he ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been
working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical
impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration
requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments
meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at
step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work
given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and
at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015);
see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4). The claimant bears the burden to make the
requisite showing during the first four steps. Monroe v.
Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80. (4th Cir. 2016). If the
claimant fails to carry that burden at any step, she is
determined not to be disabled. If the claimant does meet her
burden of proof, the burden then shifts to the Commissioner
at step five. Id. at 180. The Commissioner does not
contest that Lewis met her burden as to steps one and two, so
we focus on steps three through five as those are most
relevant to the issues before us.
claimant fails to demonstrate she has a disability that meets
or medically equals a listed impairment at step three, the
ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional
capacity ("RFC") before proceeding to step four,
which is "the most [the claimant] can still do despite
[her physical and mental] limitations [that affect h[er]
ability to work]." 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). That determination requires
the ALJ to "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."
Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (internal quotations
omitted); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1
(July 2, 1996). Once the function-by-function analysis is
complete, an ALJ may define the claimant's RFC "in
terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light,
medium, heavy, and very heavy." SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL
374184, at *1. See generally 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1567, 416.967 (defining "sedentary, light, medium,
heavy, and very heavy" exertional requirements of work).
assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ must examine
"all of [the claimant's] medically determinable
impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, " 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1525(a)(2), 416.925(a)(2), "including
those not labeled severe at step two." Mascio,
780 F.3d at 635. In addition, he must "consider all [the
claimant's] symptoms, including pain, and the extent to
which [her] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent
with the objective medical evidence and other evidence,
" 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a).
"When the medical signs or laboratory findings show that
[the claimant has] a medically determinable impairment(s)
that could reasonably be expected to produce [her] symptoms,
such as pain, [the ALJ] must then evaluate the intensity and
persistence of [the claimant's] symptoms so that [the
ALJ] can determine how [her] symptoms limit [her] capacity
for work." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(1),
assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ continues with the
fourth step, where the claimant must establish she is unable
to perform past work. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. If
she meets her burden as to past work, the ALJ proceeds to
step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by
a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can
perform other work that 'exists in significant numbers in
the national economy, ' considering the claimant's
residual functional capacity, age, education, and work
experience." Id. (quoting 20 C.F.R.
§§ 416.920(a)(4)(v), 416.960(c)(2), 416.1429).
"The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through
the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a
hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's