United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MARK A. NIXON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
WILLIAM L. OSTEEN, Jr., District Judge.
This cause comes before the court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings regarding a determination that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act for purposes of disability insurance benefits or supplemental security income. For the reasons set forth below, the court will grant Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. 14) and deny Plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Doc. 12).
Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI"), alleging a disability onset date of July 14, 2006. (Tr. at 46, 108-16.) After his claims were denied initially (Tr. at 60-64) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 69-75), Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which took place on April 17, 2009 (Tr. at 12-38, 46). The ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff was not under a disability from the date of his application through the date of the decision. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had two severe impairments - coronary artery disease with ischemic cardiomyopathy and degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine - and retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of sedentary work. (Tr. at 48-52.) The ALJ then applied the Medical-Vocational Guidelines ("the grids") in conjunction with Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, and determined that the grids directed a finding of "not disabled." (Tr. at 55-56.) After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council (Tr. at 57-59), Plaintiff filed the present action in this court.
A court's scope of judicial review is limited to determining whether the Social Security Commissioner's decision as a whole is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the correct legal standard. Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); see 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005).
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in (1) evaluating Plaintiff's credibility and medical records, and (2) failing to assign "appropriate weight" to the opinion of Dr. Behzad Taghizadeh, one of Plaintiff's treating cardiologists.
Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ failed to properly assess his allegations of disabling back pain, anxiety, and cardiac symptoms. This analysis proceeds under the framework set out in Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 594-95 (4th Cir. 1996). Craig provides a two-part test for evaluating a claimant's statements about symptoms. "First, there must be objective medical evidence showing the existence of a medical impairment(s) which results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities and which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged.'" Id . at 594 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.929(b) and 404.1529(b)). If the ALJ determines that such an impairment exists, the second part of the test then requires him to consider all of the available evidence, including Plaintiff's statements about his pain or other symptoms, in order to evaluate the intensity and persistence of those symptoms, and to determine the extent to which they affect his ability to work. Craig , 76 F.3d at 595-96.
Notably, while the ALJ must consider Plaintiff's statements and other subjective evidence at step two, he need not credit them "to the extent they are inconsistent with the available evidence, including objective evidence of the underlying impairment, and the extent to which that impairment can reasonably be expected to cause the pain the claimant alleges [he] suffers." Id . This approach facilitates the ALJ's ultimate goal, which is to accurately determine the extent to which Plaintiff's pain or other symptoms limit his ability to perform basic work activities. Thus, a plaintiff's "symptoms, including pain, will be determined to diminish [his] capacity for basic work activities to the extent that [his] alleged functional limitations and restrictions due to symptoms, such as pain, can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(4) and 416.929(c)(4). Relevant evidence for this inquiry includes Plaintiff's "medical history, medical signs, and laboratory findings, " Craig , 76 F.3d at 595, as well as the following factors set out in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(c)(3) and 416.929(c)(3):
(i) [Plaintiff's] daily activities;
(ii) The location, duration, frequency, and intensity of [Plaintiff's] pain or other symptoms;
(iii) Precipitating and aggravating factors;
(iv) The type, dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication [Plaintiff] take[s] or [has] taken to ...