United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
GENEVA B. LIVINGSTON, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
WILLIAM L. OSTEEN, Jr., District Judge.
Plaintiff, Geneva B. Livingston, brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI, respectively, of the Social Security Act. The court has before it the certified administrative record and the parties have filed cross-motions for judgment.
Plaintiff protectively filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income on July 11, 2008, alleging a disability onset date of November 2, 2007. (Tr. at 14, 117-27.) After her claims were denied initially (Tr. at 48-49) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 50-51), Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which took place on April 13, 2010 (Tr. at 23). The ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff was not under a disability from the date of her applications through the date of the decision. Specifically, the ALJ identified Plaintiff's right carpal tunnel syndrome, arthritis, and back and arm pain as severe impairments, but found that she nevertheless retained the residual functional capacity ("RFC") to perform the full range of medium work. (Tr. at 16, 18.) Because, based on vocational expert testimony, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff's RFC would allow her to perform all of her past relevant work, he concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. at 20-22.) After unsuccessfully seeking review of this decision by the Appeals Council, Plaintiff filed the present action in this court.
Plaintiff now argues that the ALJ erred in formulating her RFC. Specifically, she alleges that the ALJ failed to (1) apply the correct standard to evaluate Plaintiff's pain, (2) properly consider the opinions of Plaintiff's "treating and examining physicians and other medical sources, " (3) perform a "function-by-function analysis" of Plaintiff's functional limitations and restrictions, (4) consider the combined effects of all of Plaintiff's impairments, including non-severe impairments, and (5) further develop the record in light of ambiguous evidence surrounding Plaintiff's mental symptoms. Plaintiff further contends that the alleged errors in her RFC assessment and corresponding hypothetical questions to the vocational expert rendered the ALJ's finding as to past relevant work at step four of the analysis unsupported by substantial evidence.
A. Residual Functional Capacity (RFC)
i. Credibility Determination of Subjective Pain
Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's credibility finding, arguing that the ALJ failed to articulate his reasons for discrediting her subjective pain testimony or consider her objective medical evidence of pain. (Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for J. on the Pleadings ("Pl.'s Br.") (Doc. 21) at 14, 16.) In Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), the Fourth Circuit set forth 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 (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.929(b) & 404.1529(b)). If the ALJ determines that such an impairment exists, the second part of the test then requires consideration of all available evidence, including Plaintiff's statements about her pain or other symptoms, in order to evaluate the intensity and persistence of those symptoms, and to determine the extent to which they affect her ability to work. Craig , 76 F.3d at 596.
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 she suffers." Id. at 595. This approach facilitates the ALJ's ultimate goal, which is to accurately determine the extent to which Plaintiff's pain or other symptoms limit her ability to perform basic work activities. Thus, a plaintiff's "symptoms, including pain, will be determined to diminish [her] capacity for basic work activities [only] to the extent that [her] 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 ...