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Coker v. Colvin

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

September 29, 2014

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


MAX O. COGBURN, Jr., District Judge.

THIS MATTER is before the court upon plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Having carefully considered such motions and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following findings, conclusions, and Order.


I. Administrative History

Plaintiff filed applications for Disabled Widow's Benefits and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"), alleging disability beginning on January 1, 2003. Both claims were denied initially and the SSI claim was denied on reconsideration. Plaintiff requested and was granted a hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") on both claims. After conducting a hearing, the ALJ issued a decision which was unfavorable to plaintiff, from which plaintiff appealed to the Appeals Council. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security ("Commissioner"). Thereafter, plaintiff timely filed this action.

II. Factual Background

It appearing that the ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, the undersigned adopts and incorporates such findings herein as if fully set forth. Such findings are referenced in the substantive discussion that follows.

III. Standard of Review

The only issues on review are whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Review by a federal court is not de novo, Smith v. Schwieker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); rather, inquiry is limited to whether there was "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal citations omitted). Even if the undersigned were to find that a preponderance of the evidence weighed against the Commissioner's decision, the Commissioner's decision would have to be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.

When considering cross-motions for summary judgment, the court "examines each motion separately, employing the Rule 56(c) standard." Desmond v. PNGI Charles Town Gaming, L.L.C., 630 F.3d 351 (4th Cir.2011); Rossignol v. Voorhaar, 316 F.3d 516, 523 (4th Cir.2003) (the Court reviews each motion separately on its own merits in order to "determine whether either party deserves judgment as a matter of law") (internal citations omitted).

IV. Substantial Evidence

A. Introduction

The court has read the transcript of plaintiff's administrative hearing, closely considered the decision of the ALJ in light of the record, and reviewed the extensive exhibits contained in the administrative record. The issue is not whether a court might have reached a different conclusion had it been presented with the same testimony and evidentiary materials, but whether the decision of the administrative law judge is supported by substantial evidence. The court finds that the final decision is supported by substantial evidence.

B. Sequential Evaluation

A five-step process, known as "sequential" review, is used by the Commissioner in determining whether a Social Security claimant is disabled. The Commissioner evaluates a disability claim under Title II pursuant to the following five-step analysis:

a. An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be "disabled" regardless of medical findings;
b. An individual who does not have a "severe impairment" will not be found to be disabled;
c. If an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment that meets the durational requirement and that "meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1" of Subpart P of Regulations No. 4, a finding of "disabled" will be made without consideration of vocational factors;
d. If, upon determining residual functional capacity, the Commissioner finds that an individual is capable of performing work he or she has done in the past, a finding of "not disabled" must be made;
e. If an individual's residual functional capacity precludes the performance of past work, other factors including age, education, and past work experience, must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b)-(f). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir.1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

C. The Administrative Decision

With an alleged onset date of January 1, 2003, the issue before the ALJ was whether plaintiff was disabled between that date through December 31, 2010, relative to her application for disabled widow's benefits, or through the date of decision, July 12, 2013, relative to her application for supplemental security income payments. At the first step, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff's complaints of recurrent and moderate major depressive order, as well as her bipolar disorder, amounted to severe impairments. At step three, the ALJ determined plaintiff had no impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any impairments in the regulatory listings. The ALJ also concluded at the third step that plaintiff suffered from a mild restriction in her activities of daily living, as well as moderate difficulties with social functioning, concentration, persistence, and pace, but that plaintiff's mental impairment did not meet the criteria listings under the governing regulations. ( See Administrative Transcript, ("Tr.") at 15, referring to 20 C.F.R. § 404, app. 1 Listings 12.04, 12.06).

The ALJ next assessed plaintiff's residual functional capacity and found she could perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, which includes simple, routine job tasks. He concluded that plaintiff's "physical and mental impairments, considered single, and in combination, do not significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities." (Tr. at 20). After discussing the evidence about plaintiff's treatment for behavioral and mental health, the ALJ found that plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms, but that plaintiff's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and effects of her symptoms were not fully credible. The ALJ went on to explain why he did not fully credit such testimony, noting, inter alia, plaintiff had stated "on several occasions that she had not been to a doctor in over 10 years" (Tr. at 18) but that the medical evidence indicated that she had made six emergency room visits between 2009 and 2012. The ALJ also noted that although plaintiff's mother stated in a third-party function report that plaintiff neither had interest in household chores nor cared how she looked, other evidence, including direct testimony from plaintiff, indicated that she routinely performed household chores such as sweeping and washing dishes and that she was neat, well-groomed, and dressed appropriately at her medical appointments. The ALJ found that the medical evidence indicated that plaintiff was not as functionally limited as her mother suggested. The ALJ then explained the weight given to each source of opinion evidence.

At step four, in assessing whether plaintiff had the residual functioning capacity to perform the requirements of her past relevant work, the ALJ found that she was capable of performing her previous jobs of housekeeper and retail pricer. These jobs do not require performance of work-related activities that are precluded by plaintiff's residual functional capacity. Proceeding to step five in the alternative, the ALJ found that considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff was capable of performing. The vocational expert who testified at plaintiff's hearing stated that given these factors, several simple, routine jobs that involved both medium and light levels of exertion existed in the region. Accordingly, the ALJ found plaintiff not disabled between ...

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