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Schaller v. Colvin

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

September 11, 2014

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


ROBERT B. JONES, Jr., Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-24, DE-30] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant William Howard Schaller("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of his applications for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, the undersigned recommends denying Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, granting Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and upholding the final decision of the Commissioner.


Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on December 1, 2009, alleging disability beginning September 18, 2002. (R. 282). His claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 72, 82). A hearing before Administrative Law Judge Allan T. O'Sullivan ("ALJ") was held on May 11, 2011, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a witness and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 49-65). On May 24, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 83-97). On July 29, 2011, the Appeals Council remanded the claim to the ALJ for further administrative proceedings. (R. 98-100). A second administrative hearing before ALJ O'Sullivan was held on January 12, 2012, at which Claimant was once again represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 29-48). On February 9, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's claims. (R. 9-28). On March 4, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review of ALJ 0'Sullivan's second administrative decision. (R. 1-6). Claimant then commenced the instant action, seeking judicial review of the now final administrative decision.


The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "The findings of the Commissioner... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla... and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its]judgment for that of the Secretary." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).


The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:

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 [in severity] 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... past work or (5) any other work.

Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 474 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Id.

When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).

In this case, Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1) failure to give proper weight to a treating physician's medical opinion and failure to seek a Medical Source Statement ("MSS") from that physician, Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. J. Pleadings ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 7-10; (2) improper use of boilerplate language in explaining his decision, id at 10-18; (3) improper assessment of Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") for failing to find sufficient non-exertionallimitations, id at 18-19; and (4) improper assessment of Claimant's credibility, id at 19-20.


A. ALJ's Findings

Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant was no longer engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 15). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: sleep apnea, circadian rhythm disorder, morbid obesity, degenerative disc disease, depression, and history of alcohol abuse. (R. 15-16). The ALJ found that Claimant did not suffer from any non-severe impairments. Id. At step three, however, the ALJ concluded these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.P.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 16-17). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild limitations in his activities of daily living, mild difficulties in social functioning, moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence and pace, and no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. (R. 17).

Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work[1] with the additional requirements that Claimant engage in "no climbing of ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and avoidance of hazards, such as heights and machinery." (R. 17).

The ALJ also identified the non-exertionallimitation of restricting Claimant to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. Id. In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about his limitations not fully credible. (R. 17-20).

At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of his past relevant work as a traffic consultant or a planner. (R. 21). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 21-22).

B. Claimant's Testimony at the Administrative Hearing

At the time of Claimant's second administrative hearing, Claimant was 56 years old and unemployed. (R. 31-32). Claimant graduated from college in 1977 has a Master's Degree in Public Administration. (R. 33, 287). Claimant was last employed with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, where for approximately eight (8) years he served as a senior policy analyst. (R. 32). Claimant's past work experience also includes work as a solar technology salesman and transportation planner. (R. 32-33).

Claimant explained numerous medical conditions supporting his disability claim and his inability to work full-time. These medical conditions include sleep apnea, circadian rhythm disorder, depression, and obesity. Claimant testified that the primary reason he is unable to work is the effects of sleep apnea and circadian rhythm disorder. Claimant was diagnosed with severe obstructive apnea after testing in a sleep lab and was prescribed a continuous positive airway pressure ("CPAP") machine. (R. 33). Claimant testified that as a result of the machine, his sleep quality has improved over his pre-diagnosis state. (R. 33-34). Despite the improvements brought about by the CPAP machine, Claimant continues to suffer from the effects of circadian rhythm disorder, which varies his sleep patterns such that maintaining a regular sleep schedule is very difficult. (R. 34). Claimant used his vacation leave and sick days in order to attempt to compensate for missed work due to lack of sleep. (R. 35). Claimant stated that his pay was reduced by halfbecause of time missed from work and that he felt that making the drive to work on little sleep was dangerous. Id. Even where Claimant felt rested enough to drive safely, he believed that his productivity was negatively affected.

(R. 39). The effect of the circadian rhythm disorder is that Claimant's sleep schedule can be completely opposite of normal sleep hours and he is unable to maintain a sleep schedule consistently enough to work normal hours. (R. 37). During the week before the administrative hearing, for example, Claimant regularly slept until three or four o'clock in the afternoon. Id. Claimant also noted that his schedule can be normal or somewhere in between a completely opposite and ...

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