United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
GRAHAM C. MULLEN, District Judge.
THIS MATTER comes now before the Court upon Plaintiff Charles Brown's ("Plaintiff's") Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, (Doc. No. 9) filed on September 24, 2013, Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), filed on November 19, 2013, and Plaintiff's Response in Opposition (Doc. No. 13), filed on December 3, 2013. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits.
Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Social Security Appeal is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, and the Administrative Law Judge's ("ALJ's") decision is AFFIRMED.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on October 28, 2009, alleging a disability onset date of June 12, 2009. (Tr. at 16). Plaintiff's application was initially denied on February 23, 2010, and again upon reconsideration on December 10, 2010. ( Id. ). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an ALJ on January 7, 2011, and a hearing was held before the Honorable John McFadyen on August 18, 2011. ( Id. ) On October 18, 2011, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff benefits. (Tr. at 16-29). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's Request for Review by Action, thus the October 18, 2011 ALJ decision became the Commissioner's final decision. (Tr. at 1-3).
Plaintiff timely filed this action on April 3, 2013, and the parties' motions are now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Thus, this 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." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (quoting Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)).
This Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986) (citations omitted). As the Social Security Act provides, "[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, the Fourth Circuit defined "substantial evidence" as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986). It is "more than a scintilla and must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established." Id. (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was "disabled, " as defined for Social Security purposes, between June 12, 2009, and the date of his decision. (Tr. at 16). On October 18, 2011, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not "disabled" between June 12, 2009 and the date of his decision. (Tr. at 29). The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a claimant is disabled:
(1) Whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity;
(2) Whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment, or a combination of impairments that is severe;
(3) Whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals one of the Listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1;
(4) Whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the requirements of her past relevant work; and
(5) Whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering her RFC, age, education, and work experience.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v).
In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the fifth step in the above evaluation process. (Tr. at 28). Specifically, the ALJ first concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity after his alleged disability onset date. (Tr. at 18). At the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff suffered from two severe, but non-disabling impairments: (1) coronary artery disease with a history of sextuple bypass graft surgery, with occlusion of five of the bypass grafts and trans-myocardial revascularization, and subsequent EECP treatments to reduce angina; and (2) episodic low back pain with mild degenerative changes. (Tr. at 19). At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, App. 1. (Tr. at 20). At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work. (Tr. at 23). After assessing Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the capacity to "perform the full range of sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(2) and 416.967(a)." (Tr. at 20) .  At the fifth step, considering Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments, functional limitations, age, education, and work experience, the Medical Vocational Guidelines in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2, and the adjudicatory guidance of Social Security Regulations ("SSRs") 83-12, 83-14, and 85-15, the ALJ found that there are other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform. (Tr. at 28). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a "disability, " as defined by the Social Security Act, at any time between June 12, 2009 and October 18, 2011, the date of the decision. (Tr. at 21).
On appeal, Plaintiff makes the following assignments of error: (1) the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinion evidence in violation of C.F.R. § 404.1527; (2) the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff did not meet Disability Listing 4.04C; and (3) the ALJ's credibility analysis violated 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529. (Pl. Mem. at 1).
1. The ALJ Properly Weighed the Medical Opinion Evidence
Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ improperly evaluated the medical opinions of his treating, examining, and non-examining physicians. (Pl. Mem. at 15.) The ALJ must evaluate the opinion of a treating physician to determine whether that opinion is entitled to controlling weight under the regulations. See Mastro, 270 F.3d at 178. In order for a physician's opinion to be given controlling weight: (1) the opinion must be from a treating source; (2) the opinion must be a medical opinion concerning the nature and severity of the plaintiff's impairment; (3) the opinion must be well-supported by medically acceptable "clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques"; and (4) the opinion must be consistent with other "substantive evidence" in the administrative record. SSR 96-2p, available at 1996 WL 374188, at *2. Therefore, "[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." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 590 (4th Cir. 1996). Additionally, an ALJ may discount a treating physician's opinion that is based entirely on the plaintiff's own subjective reports. See Johnson, 434 F.3d at 658; see also Mastro, 270 F.3d at 178.
However, if the opinion is not entitled to controlling weight, or is from an examining physician, the ALJ must consider the following factors: (1) the length of the treatment relationship and the frequency of examination; (2) the nature and extent of the treatment relationship, including the treatment provided and the kind of examination or testing performed; (3) the degree to which the physician's opinion is supported by relevant evidence; (4) consistency between the opinion and the record as a whole; (5) whether or not the physician is a specialist in the area upon which an opinion is rendered; and (6) other factors brought to the ...