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Chambless v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Bryson City Division

August 13, 2014



RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the Court on cross-motions for summary judgment and all supporting memoranda and exhibits. (Docs. 10, 12).


On April 4, 2005, Plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability benefits alleging disability since October 1, 2004. In 2008, Plaintiff's application was denied and after a subsequent hearing the administrative law judge ("ALJ") denied Plaintiff benefits. (Tr. 63). In 2011, the Appeals Council remanded for a new hearing.[1] (Tr. 60). In 2011, the ALJ denied Plaintiff benefits and denied her request for review. The hearing decision is final, and Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies. The matter before the court is on review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

Plaintiff's severe impairments include: lumbosacral degenerative disc disease, spondylosis, hamstring strain of the right knee and borderline intellectual functioning. (Tr. 19). Plaintiff was born on January 1, 1949, making her fifty-five years old at the time of her alleged onset of disability and currently 65 years old. (Tr. 38; 14). Plaintiff has an 8th grade education and has worked as a cleaner of construction sites, a short order cook and a server or waitress. (Tr. at 38). In 2005, Dr. Dubiel performed a consultative examination of the Plaintiff to assess her complaints of lower back pain, neck and shoulder pain, and right knee pain. Dr. Dubiel found lower back pain with symptoms suggestive of right leg radiculopathy (a condition due to a compressed nerve or nerves that can cause pain, numbness, tingling or weakness), intermittent neck pain, intermittent right shoulder pain, and right hamstring strain. At the 2011 hearing, Plaintiff described her pain as being sore to the touch. She had been using over the counter Ibuprofen, heating pads, Advil and Tylenol. (Tr. 388).

In 2008, Dr. Karen Marcus performed a psychological evaluation of the claimant. Dr. Marcus stated that Plaintiff's affect was depressed and that her appearance suggested that she had a hard life. Dr. Marcus found Plaintiff had difficulty with detailed instructions and maintaining concentration. On the WAIS-III, Plaintiff received a verbal IQ in the Borderline Range, a Performance IQ in the Extremely Low Range, and a Full Scale IQ in the Extremely Low Range. (Tr. 276). Dr. Marcus found it likely that Plaintiff has a learning disorder and determined that Plaintiff seems to have problems with depression and anxiety. (Tr. 279-80). When asked about her mental health, Plaintiff commented that she had bad nerves, anxiety, and does not "motivate too good." (Tr. 389). Dr. Marcus stated that Plaintiff, "had limited, but satisfactory do unskilled work." (Tr. 36). The Vocational Expert ("VE") found that a hypothetical person with Plaintiff's capabilities could work in construction clean-up as a medium and two level job. (Tr. 396).


Judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner is authorized under 42 U.S.C § 405(g) and is limited to consideration of (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "more than a mere scintilla of evidence, " but may be somewhat less than a preponderance. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). It is evidence that a reasonable mind would find as adequate to support a conclusion. Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. District Court's review of the Secretary's decision is not de novo . Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1990). Instead, the District Court must uphold the decision of the Commissioner even when the reviewing court would have come to a different conclusion, as long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982). A court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner while reviewing whether the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Craig, 76 F.3d 585 at 589. The administrative law judge ("ALJ") has the ultimate responsibility to weigh the evidence and resolve any conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.


The issues on appeal are (1) whether the ALJ properly assessed the opinion of Dr. Marcus, and (2) whether the step-four RFC assessment is supported by substantial evidence, and if the ALJ adequately evaluated the demands of Plaintiff's past work and compared it to her RFC.[2]

1. The ALJ Properly Addressed Dr. Marcus' Medical Opinion

The ALJ properly evaluated the medical opinions in the record. Plaintiff argues that the opinions of the examining physician support a finding of disability, and that the ALJ improperly assessed the opinion of Dr. Marcus. The Government contends that the ALJ did properly evaluate the medical opinions in the record. In reviewing an examining physician's opinion, the ALJ considers: 1) examining relationship; 2) treatment relationship; 3) supportability of the physician's opinion; 4) consistency of the opinion with the record; and 5) whether the doctor is a specialist. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527. Further, "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." Craig, 76 F.3d at 590; Mastro, 270 F.3d at 178.

The ALJ assigned little weight to Dr. Marcus' assessment that Plaintiff was seriously limited but not precluded in her ability to understand and remember very short, simple, detailed instructions and respond appropriately to changes in the work setting. (Tr. 36). The ALJ made this determination because Dr. Marcus' opinion was inconsistent with the doctor's prior findings that in many areas of unskilled work Plaintiff had a limited but satisfactory ability. (Tr. 36). The ALJ agreed that Plaintiff was seriously limited in her ability to understand and remember detailed instructions, but believed that she could still perform unskilled work. (Tr. 36).

The ALJ also gave little weight to Dr. Marcus' opinion that Plaintiff was unable to meet competitive standards in various categories. (Tr. 36-37). The ALJ came to the conclusion that there was little evidence that Plaintiff lacked the cognitive ability to make simple work-related decisions or carry out short and simple instructions, adding that Dr. Marcus' other findings supported his ...

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