Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Stemple v. Astrue (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Approved for Publication)

Decided February 26, 2007. Memorandum Opinion by Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey. (Approved for publication.)

In an appeal of the denial of Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), the court held that the failure to consider plaintiff's obesity in combination with her other impairments (hypertension, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy) violated Social Security Administration (the "Agency") regulations and rulings and Fourth Circuit precedent. In so doing, the court declined to accept the harmless error principle sometimes applied in other circuits when the Agency has failed to factor obesity into the determination of severity.

An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") must follow a five-step sequential evaluation in reviewing a claim for DIB. In this case, the ALJ stopped after the second step, explicitly considering only plaintiff's hypertension, diabetes and peripheral neuropathy and concluding that plaintiff did not have a "severe" impairment or combination of impairments. The court found, however, that the record contained evidence of other conditions, including difficulty walking unaided and obesity, that either individually or in combination with others could support a finding of a severe impairment.

Fourth Circuit precedent holds that an applicant for DIB need only make a "de minimis" showing to meet the severity standard. Applying that standard, the court held that the ALJ did not properly consider medical evidence of plaintiff's problems in walking. On the obesity issue, the court noted that some courts have found harmless error when an ALJ fails to discuss an applicant's obesity, even though Agency rules require the consideration of obesity. The court declined to apply the harmless error principle for three reasons: the principle has not been discussed or adopted by the Fourth Circuit; the facts in the harmless error cases could be distinguished from the case at bar; and the Fourth Circuit and Agency regulations are clear regarding the de minimis standard to be used in determining the severity of an impairment. The court remanded the case to the ALJ to re-evaluate the second step "severity" determination by looking at the combined effects of all of plaintiff's impairments. Furthermore, if plaintiff's impairments, either individually or in combination, are found to be severe, the court directed the ALJ to consider plaintiff's obesity at steps three, four and five of the evaluation process.

The Memorandum Opinion is available in PDF.

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