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Pickett v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 23, 2014

BERNARD PICKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CATHERINE C. EAGLES, District Judge.

Plaintiff Bernard Pickett brought this action to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claims for disability benefits. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review. The Court finds no reversible error and will grant the defendant's motion.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Mr. Pickett's applications were denied initially (Tr. at 65-82, 109-20)[1] and upon reconsideration. (Tr. at 83-104, 129-38.) Thereafter, he requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 139.) After a hearing, the ALJ determined that Mr. Pickett was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 11-26.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Mr. Pickett's request for review, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. at 1-5.)

II. LEGAL STANDARD

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). "[T]he scope of [the court's] review of [such an administrative] decision... is extremely limited." Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "[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." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). The issue before this Court "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).

III. THE ALJ'S DECISION

The ALJ applied the well-established five-step process to evaluate Mr. Pickett's disability claim. See Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4)). At step one, the ALJ found that Mr. Pickett had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ determined that Mr. Pickett suffered from two severe impairments: lumbar strain and cocaine addiction. (Tr. at 16.) The ALJ decided at step three that neither of these impairments met or equaled the criteria of any of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App'x 1. (Tr. at 16-17.) After assessing Mr. Pickett's residual functional capacity, the ALJ determined that Mr. Pickett could perform a full range of medium work, (Tr. at 17-25), and that he could return to his past relevant work. (Tr. at 25-26.) Accordingly, the ALJ determined that Mr. Pickett was not "disabled, " as defined by the Act. (Tr. at 26.)

IV. CONTENTIONS

Mr. Pickett raises three assignments of error. First, he contends that the ALJ erred by not re-contacting Mr. Pickett's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Robert A. Millet, to clarify Dr. Millet's June 23, 2011, written opinion that Mr. Pickett's schizophrenia precludes all gainful employment. Second, Mr. Pickett asserts that the ALJ violated the treating physician rule by not providing legally sufficient reasons for rejecting Dr. Millet's opinion. Finally, he contends that the ALJ erred by failing to obtain a "medical source statement" from Dr. Millet detailing Mr. Pickett's remaining functional abilities.

V. DISCUSSION

A. The ALJ's Duty to Re-contact a Medical Source

Mr. Pickett first sought treatment at Carolina Behavioral Care ("CBC") on March 7, 2011, for hallucinations and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Tr. at 569.) Mr. Pickett was treated five times at CBC - on four occasions by Dr. Dinesh Benjamin and on one occasion (April 13, 2011) by Dr. Millet. (Tr. at 564-70.) Dr. Millet provided a written opinion dated June 23, 2011, stating in full as follows:

Mr. Pickett is a 46-year-old black male with schizophrenia. I have followed him now for about six months. He clearly has symptoms of psychosis even with adequate treatment. I have encouraged him to apply for disability. It is clear to me his symptoms prevent him from gainful employment. I am ...

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