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Wilkins v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

October 14, 2014

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


CATHERINE C. EAGLES, District Judge.

Plaintiff Melinda Gentry Wilkins brought this action to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance benefits. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


Ms. Wilkins filed her application for Disability Insurance Benefits on October 21, 2010, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2002. (Tr. at 22, 136-39.)[1] After it was denied, (Tr. at 57-75), Ms. Wilkins requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. at 22, 98-103). After this hearing, the ALJ found that Ms. Wilkins was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 22-30.) Ms. Wilkins appealed this ruling, and, on February 21, 2013, the Appeals Council denied Ms. Wilkins' request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. at 1-4.)


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 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).


The ALJ used the well-established five-step process to evaluate Ms. Wilkins' disability claim. See Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. The ALJ found at step one that Ms. Wilkins had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" from her alleged onset date through her date last insured. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Ms. Wilkins suffered from the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and obesity. (Tr. at 24.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments met or equaled a disability listing. Accordingly, the ALJ assessed Ms. Wilkins' RFC and determined that she could perform medium work with additional postural limitations. (Tr. at 25.) At step four, the ALJ found that Ms. Wilkins could return to her past relevant work as a sewing machine operator. (Tr. at 29.) Alternatively, the ALJ found at step five that Ms. Wilkins could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. at 30.)


Ms. Wilkins contends that the ALJ erred in two ways. First, she claims that the ALJ erred in failing to recontact Dr. Thomas Long, Jr., who, several years before Ms. Wilkins' alleged onset date, indicated on a form to her employer that she was permanently limited to lifting no more than 20 pounds. Second, Ms. Wilkins makes several related contentions directed towards how the ALJ evaluated her credibility.


A. Treating Physician Opinion

Ms. Wilkins first challenges the ALJ's treatment of a one-page form dated June 9, 1999 and signed by Ms. Wilkins' treating physician, Dr. Long. The form indicates Ms. Wilkins' work restrictions at that time, including permanent unspecified limitations in standing, bending, twisting, pushing, and pulling, and no lifting of over 20 pounds. Dr. Long listed "Ruptured Disc in Back" as the plaintiff's underlying diagnosis. (Tr. at 391.) The ALJ gave this opinion no weight because:

[t]he opinion expressed is conclusory, providing no explanation of the evidence relied on in forming that opinion. The claimant did not provide any medical evidence of record that was concurrent with the statement, thus giving it no probative value and the undersigned gives it no weight. The restriction of essentially light work due to a ruptured ...

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