United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
DELORES L. SOMERVILLE, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Delores L. Somerville ("Ms. Somerville") commenced this action on December 21, 2012 to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Social Security disability benefits. (Doc. 2.) Before the Court are the parties' cross motions for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Docs. 10, 13.) The Court heard oral arguments on the parties' motions on March 17, 2015. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Ms. Somerville's Motion and grants the Commissioner's Motion. The decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.
I. Procedural History
On June 7, 2010, Ms. Somerville filed an application for disability insurance benefits and on July 1, 2010 filed an application for supplemental security benefits. (Tr. at 195, 202.) In both applications, Ms. Somerville alleged a disability beginning on May 25, 2010. ( Id. ) Following a denial initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), on September 27, 2010, Ms. Somerville requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 114, 126-27, 145.) The hearing occurred on September 20, 2011, and in a decision dated December 22, 2011, the ALJ denied Ms. Somerville's disability application. ( Id. at 10, 20.) On January 10, 2012, Ms. Somerville requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision ( id. at 5-6), and on October 25, 2012, her request was denied ( id. at 1), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner.
II. Standard of Review
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)).
III. SSA Five Step Process and the Decision of the ALJ
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 work 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); 416.920(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. Id.
Here, the ALJ found that Ms. Somerville had not engaged in substantial activity since the onset date through the date she was last insured (step one); had the following severe impairments: sciatica due to degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine; hypertension; sinus problems; left shoulder degenerative joint disease; obesity; and carpal tunnel syndrome of the left wrist (step two); and that Ms. Somerville's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment (step three). (Tr. at 12-13.) The ALJ then determined that Ms. Somerville had the RFC to perform light work, except with the following conditions: occasional climbing of ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and/or crawling; no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds; frequent pushing/pulling with both upper extremities; no more than occasional overhead reaching with both upper extremities; no more than frequent use of the left, non-dominant upper extremity for fingering, handling, and operation of hand controls; avoid concentrated exposure to hazards and pulmonary irritants as well as temperature extremes; and she requires the ability to change position between sitting and standing every 30-45 minutes. ( Id. at 13-14.)
The ALJ concluded that Ms. Somerville was unable to perform any past relevant work (step four), 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 18.) These included sales attendant in retail trade, clerical office helper, and clerical mail clerk. (Tr. at 19.) Because the ALJ found that Ms. Somerville had the RFC to perform the foregoing jobs, he found her not disabled. ( Id. at 19-20.)
a. The ALJ's Assessment of the Opinion Evidence is Supported by Substantial Evidence.
Ms. Somerville first takes issue with the ALJ's evaluation of the medical opinions in formulating the RFC. Specifically, Ms. Somerville asserts that the ALJ erred in not giving the opinion of her treating physician, Dr. Bishop, controlling weight.
It is well established that 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) 416.927(c). However, if the treating physician's opinion is not supported by the medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques or is inconsistent with other substantial ...