United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
THOMAS R. BOWERS, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
L. PATRICK AULD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Thomas R. Bowers, brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act") to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act. (Docket Entry 1.) The Court has before it the certified administrative record (cited herein as "Tr."), as well as the parties' cross-motions for judgment (Docket Entries 10, 13). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
Plaintiff applied for DIB and alleged a disability onset date of January 1, 2003. (Tr. 50-52.) Upon denial of that application initially (Tr. 26, 45-49) and on reconsideration (Tr. 27, 40-42), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 39). Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") attended the hearing. (Tr. 994-1044.) The ALJ then ruled Plaintiff not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. 14-25.) The Appeals Council subsequently denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. 6-9.)
In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the... Act through December 31, 2010.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2003, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1520(b) and 404.1571 et seq. )
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, cervical spondylosis, spinal stenosis, and recurrent headaches (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c))....
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1520(d), 404.1525 and 404.1526).
5.... [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) provided he is allowed to stretch and move as needed while standing and is not required to stand or walk more than one hour at a time. Additionally, [Plaintiff] should not be required to climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl on more than an occasional basis.
In light of the findings regarding residual functional capacity ("RFC"), the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a lawn maintenance worker as Plaintiff actually had performed such work. (Tr. 24.) Accordingly, the ALJ found Plaintiff to suffer from no "disability, " as defined in the Act, at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of decision. (Id.) Alternatively, based on the VE's testimony, as well as consideration of Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could "perform other vocationally relevant jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy." (Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).)
Federal law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits." Hines v. Barnhart , 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, "the scope of... review of [such a] decision... is extremely limited." Frady v. Harris , 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "The courts are not to try the case de novo." Oppenheim v. Finch , 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, "a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hines , 453 F.3d at 561 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted).
"Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan , 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence." Hunter , 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).
"In reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner]." Mastro , 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the ALJ)." Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). "The issue before [the Court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
In confronting that issue, the Court must note that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, " Hall v. Harris , 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context, "disability" means 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, '" id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). "To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration has... promulgated... detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, and work experience in addition to [the claimant's] medical condition." Hall , 658 F.2d at 264. "These regulations establish a sequential evaluation process' to determine whether a claimant is disabled." Id . (internal citations omitted).
This sequential evaluation process ("SEP") has up to five steps: "The claimant (1) must not be engaged in substantial gainful activity, ' i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a severe' impairment that (3) meets or exceeds the listings' of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past work or (5) any other work." Albright v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points forecloses a benefits award and ends the inquiry. For example, "[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied." Bennett v. Sullivan , 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).
On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first three steps, "the claimant is disabled." Mastro , 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., "[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC')." Id. at 179. Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can "perform past relevant work"; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, whereupon the ALJ must decide "whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job." Hall , 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the government cannot carry its "evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community, " the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines , 453 F.3d at 567.
Assignments of Error
According to Plaintiff, substantial evidence fails to support the findings at steps two, four, and five and/or the ALJ misapplied the law at those steps. (Docket Entry 11 at 4-20.) Specifically, Plaintiff asserts the ALJ erred by: (1) finding against Plaintiff at step four, because the work to which the ALJ found Plaintiff could return did not qualify as substantial gainful activity (id. at 4-7); (2) resolving step five based on the VE's responses to a hypothetical question that lacked limitations the ALJ included in the RFC (id. at 7-9); (3) limiting cross-examination of the VE in a manner that undermined the step five ruling (id. at 9-13); (4) failing to identify Chronic Fatigue Syndrome ("CFS") as a severe impairment at step two and to include related limitations in the RFC (thus affecting the step five decision) (id. at 13-17); and (5) ignoring and miscasting medical ...