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Lewis v. Berryhill

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

June 2, 2017

STACY L. LEWIS, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: January 24, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. Stephanie A. Gallagher, Magistrate Judge. (1:14-cv-03694-SAG)

         ARGUED:

          Gregory Dolin, UNIVERSITY OF BALTIMORE SCHOOL OF LAW, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.

          Jay C. Hinsley, SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Meghan E. Ellis, Third Year Law Student, UNIVERSITY OF BALTIMORE SCHOOL OF LAW, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.

          Rod J. 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.

          Before AGEE, KEENAN, and THACKER, Circuit Judges.

         Vacated and remanded with instructions by published opinion. Judge Agee wrote the opinion, in which Judge Keenan and Judge Thacker joined.

          AGEE, Circuit Judge.

         Stacy 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 further proceedings.

         I.

         On 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 Commissioner.

         Subsequently, 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[1] 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.

         Lewis timely appealed, and this Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         A.

         To 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.

         If the 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).

         When 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), 416.929(c)(1).

         After 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.

         "At 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. ยงยง 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 ...


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