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Brown v. Colvin

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

February 25, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, District Judge.

This matter comes before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings (DE 21, 29).[1] In this posture, the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court grants defendant's motion, denies plaintiff's motion, and upholds the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner").


Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on March 3, 2009, alleging disability beginning November 27, 2008. This application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who determined that plaintiff was not disabled during the relevant time period in a decision dated January 4, 2011. On June 22, 2012, the Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ decision, and plaintiff filed this action on August 21, 2012, for review of the final decision of the Commissioner.


A. Standard of Review

The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits. The court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ "if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). "Substantial evidence is... such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by "more than a mere scintilla of evidence but... less than a preponderance." Laws v. Celebrezze , 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966).

The ALJ's determination of eligibility for Social Security benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:

(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform her past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.

Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater , 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not engaged in gainful employment. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: thoracic facet joint syndrome, bulging discs, depression, obesity and sleep disturbance. However, at step three, the ALJ further determined that plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments severe enough to meet or medically equal one of the impairments in the regulations. Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform sedentary work, subject to the following limitations: (1) plaintiff "must be given the opportunity to switch from sitting to standing every 30 to 45 minutes"; (2) must be "restricted to performing work entailing three- or four-step operations that [plaintiff] can learn over a period of time"; and (3) must not be exposed to "hazards such as dangerous machinery." The ALJ determined that plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work, but that plaintiff could adjust to the demands of other employment opportunities existing in significant numbers in the national economy. Accordingly, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not under a disability during the relevant time period.

B. Analysis

Plaintiff raises three assignments of error in his motion. First, plaintiff argues that the ALJ selectively relied on portions of Dr. Robert J. Wilson's medical opinion without sufficient explanation as to why the entire opinion was not accepted. Second, he maintains that the ALJ failed to apply adequately the factors in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527 to Dr. Joey Thomas' medical opinion. Third, plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly evaluated plaintiff's credibility. Finally, plaintiff asserts that there is new and material evidence requiring remand.

1. Dr. Robert J. Wilson's Medical Opinion

Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by improperly relying on portions of Dr. Robert J. Wilson's medical opinion without explaining why the entire opinion was not accepted. Generally, a treating physician's opinion should be accorded greater weight than the opinion of a non-treating physician's opinion, but the court is not required to give the testimony controlling weight in all circumstances. Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001). A treating physician's opinion on the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment is given controlling weight if it is "supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence on the record." Id; see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). "[B]y negative implication, if a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight." Mastro , 270 F.3d at 178 (quoting Craig , 76 F.3d at 590) (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, the ALJ has the discretion to give less weight to the treating physician's testimony in the face of contrary evidence. Id.

"Additionally, the ALJ is not bound by a treating physician's opinion regarding whether a claimant is disabled, as that opinion is reserved for the Commissioner." Parker v. Astrue , 792 F.Supp.2d 886, 894 (E.D. N.C. 2011); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1). The Commissioner will use medical sources to provide evidence "on the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairments, " but determination of a ...

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