United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
FRANK D. WHITNEY, Chief District Judge.
THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 14). Plaintiff seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiff filed Title II and Title XVI applications for disability benefits on May 27, 2011. (Tr. 285). Her claim was initially denied on September 21, 2011, (Tr. 98), and was denied upon reconsideration on November 29, 2011. (Tr. 108, 111). At Plaintiff's request, an Administrative Law Judge ("the ALJ"), Ronald J. Feibus, held a hearing on July 12, 2012. (Tr. 51, 74). On July 20, 2012, the ALJ issued a finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 87-88). On September 27, 2012, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ for further proceedings. (Tr. 93-94). The ALJ held another hearing on January 4, 2013. (Tr. 35). On January 11, 2013, the ALJ issued a finding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 28-29). Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council, which was denied on April 2, 2014, rendering the ALJ's January 11 decision the Commissioner's final decision in this case. (Tr. 1-6).
Plaintiff timely filed this action on June 2, 2014 (Doc. No. 1), and the parties' Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner in social security cases is authorized pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), and is limited to consideration of (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987)). Substantial evidence has be defined as "more than a mere scintilla. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consolidated Edison v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)); Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court may not reweigh the evidence, try the case de novo, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. See Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). The ALJ, and not the Court, has the ultimate responsibility for weighing the evidence and resolving any conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was "disabled" under the Social Security Act ("the Act") between her application date and the date of the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff has the burden of proving she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act in ordered to be entitled to benefits. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
On July 20, 2012, and again on January 11, 2013, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not "disabled" any time between May 27, 2011, which was her date of application, and the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 87-88; 28-29). The Act provides a five-step sequential evaluation process ("SEP") for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. If an individual is determined to be disabled or not disabled at a step, a decision is made and the adjudicator does not proceed to the next step. The five steps are: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment or combination of impairments; (3) whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or equals one of The Listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, and meets the duration requirement; (4) whether the claimant has the residual function capacity ("RFC") to perform the requirements of his past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work, considering his 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 of the evaluation process. (Tr. 27-28). The ALJ concluded that "based on the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform" and therefore she was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 27-28).
On appeal, Plaintiff presents three assignments of error: (1) that the ALJ erred when he determined that Plaintiff's dementia was a severe impairment but did not include any limitations caused by dementia in the residual functional capacity finding; (2) that the ALJ's determination that Plaintiff is limited to the mental demands of unskilled sedentary work was insufficient and not substantially supported by the evidence of record; and (3) that the ALJ erred when he did not give "good reasons" as to why he did not accept all or part of Dr. Bryant's opinion. (Doc. No. 12 at 5). However, a review of the record establishes that the ALJ did not commit error in finding that Plaintiff was not disabled.
A. Residual Functional Capacity Finding
Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred when he determined that Plaintiff's dementia was a severe impairment but did not include any limitations caused by dementia in the residual functional capacity (RFC) finding. (Doc. No. 12 at 5). According to SSR 96-3p, an impairment is considered "severe" if it "significantly limits an individual's physical or mental abilities to do basic work activities." Here, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had a severe impairment of dementia established by medical evidence. (Tr. 18). Plaintiff argues that despite the finding of a severe impairment (dementia), the ALJ did not include any limitations in the RFC finding, which would be a logically inconsistent finding since by definition a "severe impairment" is one that limits an individual's ability to do work. However, the ALJ did include limitations in the RFC. Specifically, he found "that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform ...