United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
JAMES E. GATES, Magistrate Judge.
In this action, plaintiff Ronald Rogers ("plaintiff" or, in context, "claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin ("Commissioner") denying his applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on the grounds that he is not disabled. The case is before the court on the respective parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. (D.E. 29, 31). The motions were referred to the undersigned Magistrate Judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). ( See D.E. 33). The motions have been fully briefed. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that the Commissioner's motion be allowed, plaintiff's motion be denied, and the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.
A. Case History
Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on 8 November 2010 and 3 November 2010, respectively, alleging a disability onset date of 15 October 2010. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 13. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was timely filed. Tr. 13. On 21 June 2012, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), at which plaintiff and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 31-63. After the submission of additional evidence (Tr. 684-97), the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim on 13 August 2013. Tr. 13-24. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 7-9. On 29 October 2013, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. Tr. 1-6. At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review on 5 February 2014, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) (DIB) and 1383(c)(3) (SSI). ( See In Forma Pauperis Mot. (D.E. 1); Order Allowing Mot. (D.E. 5), Compl. (D.E. 6)).
B. Standards for Disability
The Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as the "inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). "An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).
The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:
(i) At the first step, we consider your work activity, if any. If you are doing substantial gainful activity, we will find that you are not disabled....
(ii) At the second step, we consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you do not have a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment that meets the duration requirement in [§ 404.1509 for DIB and § 416.909 for SSI], or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are not disabled....
(iii) At the third step, we also consider the medical severity of your impairment(s). If you have an impairment(s) that meets or equals one of our listings ["Listings"] in [20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1]... and meets the duration requirement, we will find that you are disabled....
(iv) At the fourth step, we consider our assessment of your residual functional capacity ["RFC"] and your past relevant work. If you can still do your past relevant work, we will find that you are not disabled....
(v) At the fifth and last step, we consider our assessment of your [RFC] and your age, education, and work experience to see if you can make an adjustment to other work. If you can make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are not disabled. If you cannot make an adjustment to other work, we will find that you are disabled....
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
The burden of proof and production rests with the claimant during the first four steps of the analysis. Pass, 65 F.3d at 1203. The burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to show that alternative work is available for the claimant in the national economy. Id.
In the case of multiple impairments, the Regulations require that the ALJ "consider the combined effect of all of [the claimant's] impairments without regard to whether any such impairment, if considered separately, would be of sufficient severity." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1523, 416.923. If a medically severe combination of impairments is found, the combined impact of those impairments will be considered throughout the disability determination process. Id. §§ 404.1523, 416.923.
C. Findings of the ALJ
Plaintiff was 51 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 53 years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 22 ¶ 7. The ALJ found that he has a limited education (plaintiff having testified that he did not complete high school (Tr. 35)) and that he had past relevant work as a truck driver and log dump truck driver. Tr. 22 ¶¶ 6, 8.
Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset of disability. Tr. 15 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy status post laminectomy, light femur fracture, asthma, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, avascular necrosis of the right hip, and borderline obesity. Tr. 15 ¶ 3. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or equals one of the Listings. Tr. 16 ¶ 4.
The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b), which provide:
Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling of arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, we determine that he or she can also do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to sit for long periods of time.
20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b), 416.967(b).
The ALJ included the following limitations in the RFC:
a sit/stand option every 30 minutes; can perform occasional postural activities; can frequently, reach, handle, and finger with the right upper extremity; limited to work that only involves occasional reading, not complex; no more than very simple math; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards and pulmonary irritants; limited to simple repetitive tasks, unskilled work; occasional interpersonal contact; and routine and no high output or quota work.
Tr. 18 ¶ 5.
At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. Tr. 22 ¶ 6. At step five, the ALJ accepted the testimony of the vocational expert and found that there were jobs in the national economy existing in significant numbers that plaintiff could perform, including jobs in the occupations of hand bander, cardboard inserter, and laundry checker. Tr. 23 ¶ 10. The ALJ accordingly concluded that plaintiff was not disabled. Tr. 23 ¶ 11.
D. Standard of Review
Under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the appropriate legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Unless the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the wrong legal standard was applied, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla of evidence, but somewhat less than a preponderance. Perales, 402 U.S. at 401.
The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner as long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). In addition, the court may not make findings of fact, revisit inconsistent evidence, or make determinations of credibility. See Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979). A Commissioner's decision based on substantial evidence must be affirmed, even if the reviewing court would have reached a different conclusion. Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775.
Before a court can determine whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must ascertain whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight given to probative evidence. See Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997). "Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator." DeLoatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983).
II. OVERVIEW OF PLAINTIFF'S CONTENTIONS
Plaintiff argues that the case should be remanded for the award of benefits or, alternatively, for a new hearing on the grounds that the ALJ erred in: (1) evaluating the medical opinions of plaintiff's primary care physician Toby B. Okons, M.D. and consulting psychologist R. Meredith Hall, Ph.D.; (2) assessing plaintiff's credibility; and (3) not discussing certain testimony of the vocational expert. Each ground is examined in turn below.
A. ALJ's Assessment of Medical Opinion Evidence
1. Applicable Law
"Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s), including [the claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant] can still do despite impairment(s), and [the claimant's] physical or mental restrictions." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2). An ALJ must consider all medical opinions in a case in determining whether a claimant is disabled. See id. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); Nicholson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 600 F.Supp.2d 740, 752 (N.D. W.Va. 2009) ("Pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(b), 416.927(b), an ALJ must consider all medical opinions when determining the disability status of a claimant.").
The Regulations provide that opinions of treating physicians and psychologists on the nature and severity of impairments are to be accorded controlling weight if they are well supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and are not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); see Craig, 76 F.3d at 590; Ward v. Chater, 924 F.Supp. 53, 55-56 (W.D. Va. 1996); Soc. Sec. R. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188 (2 July 1996). Otherwise, the opinions are to be given significantly less weight. Craig, 76 F.3d at 590. In this circumstance, the Regulations prescribe factors to be considered in determining the weight to be ascribed, including the length and nature of the treating relationship, the supportability of the opinions, and their consistency with the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(6), 416.927(c)(2)-(6).
The ALJ's "decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating source's medical opinion, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the [ALJ] gave to the treating source's medical opinion and the reasons for that weight." Soc. Sec. R. 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5; see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); Ashmore v. Colvin, No. 0:11-2865-TMC, 2013 WL 837643, at *2 (D.S.C. 6 Mar. 2013) ("In doing so [i.e., giving less weight to the testimony of a treating physician], the ALJ must explain what weight is given to a treating physician's opinion and give specific reasons for his decision to discount the opinion.").
The same factors used to determine the weight to be accorded the opinions of physicians and psychologists (and other "acceptable medical sources") apply to the opinions of providers who are deemed to be at a different professional level (or so-called "other sources"). See Soc. Sec. R. 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *2, 4 (9 Aug. 2006); see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) (evaluation of medical opinions); 416.927(c) (same); 404.1513(d) (partial listing of "other sources"); 416.913(d)(1) (same). As with opinions from physicians and psychologists, the ALJ must explain the weight given opinions of other sources and the reasons for the weight given. See Soc. Sec. R. 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *6 ("[The ALJ] generally should explain the weight given to opinions from these other sources, ' or otherwise ensure that the discussion of the evidence in the determination or decision allows a claimant or subsequent reviewer to follow the adjudicator's reasoning, when such opinions may have an effect on the outcome of the case."); Napier v. Astrue, No. TJS-12-1096, ...