United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Barbara Braxton ("Ms. Braxton") commenced this action on November 16, 2012 requesting judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Social Security disability benefits. (Doc. 1.) Before the Court are cross-motions for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by the parties, respectively. (Docs. 9, 14.) The Court heard oral argument by counsel for the parties on their motions on March 3, 2015. For the reasons set forth below, the Court reverses the decision of the ALJ and remands the case to the Commissioner for an award of benefits to Ms. Braxton.
I. Procedural History
On October 13, 2004, Ms. Braxton filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income alleging a disability beginning on September 14, 2001. (Tr. at 74-78, 417-420.) Following a denial initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration, Ms. Braxton requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"), which occurred on June 30, 2008. ( Id. at 46-55, 442.) On September 2, 2008, the ALJ issued a decision denying Ms. Braxton's disability application. ( Id. at 439-50.) Ms. Braxton appealed this decision to the Appeals Council for review, and the Appeals Council remanded the matter to the ALJ on July 7, 2010. (Tr. at 452-56.) In its remand order, the Appeals Council directed the ALJ to, among other things, give further consideration to the treating and non-treating source opinions pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527, 416.927, Social Security Rulings 96.2p, 96.5p, and non-examining source opinions pursuant to 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(f), 416.927(f), Social Security Ruling 96-6p, and to explain the weight given to such opinion evidence. ( Id. at 455.) On February 10, 2011, a second hearing was then held by the ALJ, and in a decision dated June 21, 2011, the ALJ found that Ms. Braxton was not disabled prior to January 13, 2009 ( id. at 14, 19), but did conclude that Ms. Braxton became disabled on January 13, 2009 due to a change in her age category under Rule 202.06 of 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2. (Tr. at 33-35.) Ms. Braxton once again requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, and on October 11, 2012, her request was denied, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. ( Id. at 9.)
II. Standard of Review and ALJ Process
This Court's review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits is authorized under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 471 (4th Cir. 2012). The scope of review, however, is extremely limited. Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). The role of the reviewing court is not to "reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)(second alteration in original). Rather, the court must uphold the Commissioner's factual findings if they are supported by substantial evidence and are free of legal error. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 471. Substantial evidence is such "evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Id. (citation omitted). It is considered more than "a scintilla of evidence" but is less "than a preponderance." Id. "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [ALJ]." Id. (quoting Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (alteration in original)).
In evaluating disability claims, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. In sequence, the Commissioner asks "whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to [his or her] past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy." Id. The claimant bears the burden of production and proof in steps one through four; the burden shifts to the Commissioner in step five "to produce evidence that other jobs exist in the national economy that the claimant can perform considering [his or her] age, education, and work experience." Id. at 472-73. Before going from step three to step four, the Commissioner assesses the claimant's "residual functional capacity" ("RFC"), a determination of what the claimant is capable of doing. The RFC is used at step four and at step five when the claim is evaluated at those steps. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). If the ALJ finds that the claimant has failed to satisfy any step of the process, the ALJ need not proceed to the next step. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-73 (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)).
III. The Decision of the ALJ
The ALJ found that Ms. Braxton had not engaged in substantial activity since the onset date through the date she was last insured (step one); had the following severe impairments: disorders of the cervical spine and lumbar spine; osteoarthrosis and allied disorders; and mood disorders (step two); and that Ms. Braxton's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment (step three). (Tr. at 22-27.)
The ALJ then determined that Ms. Braxton had the RFC to perform light work, except as follows: lift/carry 10 pounds frequently and 20 pounds occasionally; can stand/walk/sit 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, with normal breaks; she should avoid frequent ascending or descending stairs; can perform frequent pushing/pulling motions with her upper and lower extremities within the aforementioned weight restrictions; can perform frequent but not constant activities requiring bilateral manual dexterity for both gross and fine manipulation with reaching and handling; she retains the ability to climb, balance, stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl without restrictions; and, due to her mental impairments, she requires work that is low stress (non-production oriented) simple, unskilled work activity requiring only one, two, or three step instructions. ( Id. at 28-29.)
The ALJ determined that Ms. Braxton was unable to perform any past relevant work (step four) for the period prior to January 13, 2009, but considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she was able to perform (step five). ( Id. at 33.) These included the light jobs of stock checker, laundry classifier and cleaner, and sedentary jobs such as order clerk and information clerk. (Tr. at 33-34.) Further, the ALJ determined that, beginning January 13, 2009 when her age category changed, Ms. Braxton became disabled by application of Medical Vocational Rule 202.06. ( Id. at 35.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Braxton was disabled beginning January 13, 2009 for the reasons outlined above but that, based on her RFC, she was not disabled prior to that time.
Ms. Braxton challenges the ALJ's finding that she had the RFC to perform "frequent but not constant activities requiring manual dexterity for both gross and fine manipulation with reaching and handling." In particular, Ms. Braxton contends that the ALJ erred by relying on the opinion of the non-examining state consultant, Dr. Caviness, whose opinion he assigned great weight, while giving less than controlling weight to the opinion of Dr. Emrich, Ms. Braxton's treating physician.
A treating physician's opinion is given controlling weight if it "is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the] case record." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c). If an opinion is not given controlling weight, the ALJ applies the following factors to determine the weight to give the opinion: "(1) whether the physician has examined the applicant, (2) the treatment relationship between the physician and the applicant, (3) the supportability of the physician's opinion, (4) the consistency of the opinion with the record, and (5) whether the physician is a specialist." Johnson, 434 F.3d at 654; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). Irrespective of the weight given to the treating physician's opinion, the ALJ must be sufficiently specific to make clear to the court the reasons for giving that weight to such opinion. SSR 96-2(p), 1996 WL 374188, at ...