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Brown v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 13, 2015

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


LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Margaret J. Brown ("Ms. Brown") commenced this action on October 2, 2012, requesting judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Social Security disability benefits. (Doc. 1 (Compl.) ¶ 1.) Before the Court are Ms. Brown's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 9) and the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 12). The administrative record has been certified to the Court for review. 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 denies Ms. Brown's motion and grants Defendant Commissioner's motion.

I. Procedural History

On September 28, 2009, Ms. Brown filed an application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability beginning September 30, 2006. (Tr. at 22, 128-33, 152.[1]) Following a denial initially and upon reconsideration, Ms. Brown requested and obtained a hearing on January 19, 2011 before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. at 22, 37-61.) The ALJ denied Ms. Brown's application on March 17, 2011. (Tr. at 22-33.) The Appeals Council denied her request for review on August 6, 2012 (Tr. at 1-6), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Brown then filed the present action on October 2, 2012. (Doc. 1.)

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. In applying this standard, reviewing courts "do not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [their] judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Johnson v. Barnhart , 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (second alteration in original). A reviewing court "must uphold the factual findings of the [ALJ] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard. 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. (alteration in original) (quoting Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653).

In evaluating disability claims, the Commissioner uses a five-step process which is well-established. 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 her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy." Hancock , 667 F.3d at 472. 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 h[er] age, education, and work experience." Id. at 472-73. If the claimant's disability can be determined at any step, the inquiry need not continue to subsequent steps. Id. at 473. 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. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

III. The Decision of the ALJ

The ALJ found that Ms. Brown had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the onset date through date last insured (step one) and had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; fibromyalgia; arthritis; carpal tunnel syndrome; hypertension and hypothyroidism (step two). (Tr. at 24.) The ALJ did not find depression or anxiety to be a severe impairment. (Tr. at 26-27.) The ALJ also found that her impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment (step three). ( Id. at 27.) The ALJ determined that Ms. Brown had the RFC to perform light work with the following limitations: a sit/stand option allowing her to sit 30 minutes at a time and stand as needed; able to perform frequent but not constant fingering; and able to have occasional exposure to hazards. ( Id . at 27-28.) The ALJ found that Ms. Brown was unable to perform her past work (step four); however, considering her age, education, work experience and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she was capable of performing, including mail clerk, nut and bolt assembler, and cashier with a sit/stand option (step five). ( Id . at 31-33.) Thus, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Brown was not disabled. ( Id. at 33.)

IV. Discussion

Ms. Brown asserts two grounds in support of her motion: (1) the ALJ erred in his RFC determination that Ms. Brown could perform light work despite contrary medical opinions before the ALJ; and (2) the ALJ erred in his finding that depression was not a severe impairment and therefore had no impact on her residual functional capacity. Ms. Brown urges remand on the second ground for a psychological consultative examination. (Doc. 10 at 3-11.) The Court will address each ground in turn.

A. Weight of Medical Opinions

Ms. Brown argues that the ALJ's RFC finding is contradicted by the opinions of Dr. McDonald, her primary care physician, and Dr. Mills, a consultative examiner, as well as evidence of her surgeries and ailments. She alleges that the ALJ failed to discuss the factors set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d) when he evaluated and weighed these opinions.[2] (Doc. 10 at 5-6.)

Under the Treating Physician Rule, the Commissioner generally gives more weight and deference to the opinion of a treating medical source. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(d)(1)-(2). When that opinion is well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques, and is not inconsistent with other substantial evidence, the ALJ must give the opinion controlling weight. Id. § 404.1527(d)(2). 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 ...

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