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Fox v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

February 25, 2014

JAMES C. FOX, JR., Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


JAMES E. GATES, Magistrate Judge.

In this action, plaintiff James C. Fox, Jr. ("plaintiff") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin ("Commissioner") denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on the grounds that he is not disabled.[1] The case is before the court on the respective parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. (D.E. 21, 24). Each party filed a memorandum in support of its motion (D.E. 21-1, 25) and plaintiff filed a reply (D.E. 26). The motions were referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (Minute Entry dated 18 Oct. 2013). For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that plaintiff's motion be allowed, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and this case be remanded.


A. Case History

Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on 26 May 2009, alleging a disability onset date of 23 September 2004. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 11, 136-42. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was timely filed. Tr. 11, 76, 95-96. On 22 September 2011, a video hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). Tr. 27-59. In a written decision dated 11 January 2012, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled and therefore not entitled to DIB or SSI. Tr. 11-21. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 7. On 16 January 2013, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. Tr. 1-6. At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review on 27 February 2013, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) (DIB) and 1383(c)(3) (SSI). ( See In Forma Pauperis Mot. (D.E. 1), Order Allowing Mot. (D.E. 4), Compl. (D.E. 5)).

B. Standards for Disability

The Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Pass v. Chater , 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). "An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he 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 the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:

(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled....
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in [§ 404.1509 for DIB and § 416.909 for SSI], or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled....
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings in [20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1]... and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled....
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity ["RFC"] and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled....
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your [RFC] and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled

20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

The burden of proof and production rests with the claimant during the first four steps of the analysis. Pass , 65 F.3d at 1203. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to show that alternative work is available for the claimant in the national economy. Id. In the case of multiple impairments, the Regulations require that the ALJ "consider the combined effect of all of [the claimant's] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. If a medically severe combination of impairments is found, the combined impact of those impairments will be considered throughout the disability determination process. Id.

C. Findings of the ALJ

Plaintiff was 38 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 45 years old on the date of the administrative hearing. Tr. 20 ¶ 7. He has an eleventh grade education. Tr. 20 ¶ 8; 33. His past work includes employment as a floor installer and kitchen helper. Tr. 20 ¶ 6; 34. Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset of disability. Tr. 13 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine; psychotic disorder; bipolar disorder; diabetes mellitus; and hypertension. Tr. 13 ¶ 3. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal any of the listings. Tr. 14 ¶ 4.

The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform medium work with certain limitations. Tr. 16 ¶ 5. Medium work involves lifting, carrying, pushing, or pulling up to 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c).[2] The specific limitations were as follows:

[H]e should avoid climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds and concentrated exposure to hazards. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, in that he can apply common sense understanding to carry out oral, written and diagrammatic instructions, in a low-stress work environment; and he can have occasional contact with the public and frequent contact with co-workers.

Tr. 16 ¶ 5.

In reaching this RFC determination, the ALJ gave little weight to the opinions of plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Mark O'Daniel, D.O., and a physician's assistant who works with Dr. O'Daniel, Donna Shelton, both of LeChris Counseling Service ("LeChris Counseling"), but gave significant weight to the opinions of two state agency psychological consultants. Tr. 18-19 ¶ 5. The ALJ also found plaintiff only partially credible. Tr. 19 ¶ 5. It is these determinations that are the focus of plaintiff's appeal.

Based on his determination of plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was not capable of performing his past relevant work. Tr. 19 ¶ 6. At step five, the ALJ accepted the testimony of a vocational expert and found that there were jobs in the national economy existing in significant numbers that plaintiff could perform, including jobs in the occupations of cleaner II, dining room attendant, and laundry worker. Tr. 20-21 ¶ 10; 55-56. The ALJ accordingly concluded that plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 21 ¶ 11.

D. Standard of Review

Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the appropriate legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan , 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Unless the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the wrong legal standard was applied, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Smith v. Schweiker , 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Blalock v. Richardson , 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Perales , 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB , 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla of evidence, but somewhat less than a preponderance. Perales , 402 U.S. at 401.

The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner as long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hunter v. Sullivan , 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). In addition, the court may not make findings of fact, revisit inconsistent evidence, or make determinations of credibility. See Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); King v. Califano , 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979). A Commissioner's decision based on substantial evidence must be affirmed, even if the reviewing court would have reached a different conclusion. Blalock , 483 F.2d at 775.

Before a court can determine whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must ascertain whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight given to probative evidence. See Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers , 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997). "Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator." DeLoatche v. Heckler , 715 F.2d 148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983).

E. Standards for Evaluation of Opinion Evidence from Medical Sources

"Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s), including [the claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [the claimant's] physical or mental restrictions." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2). An ALJ must consider all medical opinions in a case in determining whether a claimant is disabled. See id. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); Nicholson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 600 F.Supp.2d 740, 752 (N.D. W.Va. 2009) ("Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(b), 416.927(b), an ALJ must consider all medical opinions when determining the disability status of a claimant.").

The Regulations provide that opinions of treating physicians and psychologists on the nature and severity of impairments are to be accorded controlling weight if they are well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and are not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2); see Craig , 76 F.3d at 590; Ward v. Chater , 924 F.Supp. 53, 55-56 (W.D. Va. 1996); Soc. Sec. R. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 (2 July 1996). Otherwise, the opinions are to be given significantly less weight. Craig , 76 F.3d at 590. In this circumstance, the Regulations prescribe factors to be considered in determining the weight to be ascribed, including the length and nature of the treating relationship, the supportability of the opinions, and their consistency with the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2)-(6), 416.927(d)(2)-(6).

The ALJ's "decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the [ALJ] gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight." Soc. Sec. R. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2), 416.927(d)(2); Ashmore v. Colvin , No. 0:11-2865-TMC, 2013 WL 837643, at *2 (D.S.C. 6 Mar. 2013) ("In doing so [i.e., giving less weight to the testimony of a treating physician], the ALJ must explain what weight is given to a treating physician's opinion and give specific reasons for his decision to discount the opinion."). Where there are multiple opinions from a single source, an ALJ does not necessarily have to discuss each opinion separately to make clear the weight given it and the underlying reasons. See Soc. Sec. R. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *2.

The same factors used to determine the weight to be accorded the opinions of physicians and psychologists (and other so-called "acceptable medical sources") apply to the opinions of providers who are deemed to be at a different professional level (or so-called "other sources"), such as psychological counselors, therapists, or physicians' assistants. See Soc. Sec. R. 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *4 (9 Aug. 2006); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d) (evaluation of opinion evidence), 416.927(d) (same); §§ 404.1513(d)(1) (including physicians' assistants as "other sources"), 416.913(d)(1) (same). As with opinions from physicians and psychologists, the ALJ must explain the weight given opinions of other sources and the reasons for the weight given. See Soc. Sec. R. 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *6 ("[The ALJ] generally should explain the weight given to opinions from these other sources, ' or otherwise ensure that the discussion of the evidence in the determination or decision allows a claimant or subsequent reviewer to follow the adjudicator's reasoning, when such opinions may have an effect on the outcome of the case."); Napier v. Astrue , No. TJS-12-1096, 2013 WL 1856469, at *2 (D. Md. 1 May 2013) ("[T]he ALJ is required to explain in the decision the weight given to... any opinions from treating sources, non-treating sources, and other non-examination sources who do not work for the [the Social Security Administration].").

The opinions of physicians and psychologists, and other sources on issues reserved to the Commissioner, that is, legal conclusions, are not entitled to special weight because of their source, including statements that the claimant is disabled or unable to work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(e)(1), (3), 416.927(e)(1), (3). But these opinions must still be evaluated ...

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