United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.
Plaintiff Laycee Rene Moneyham ("Ms. Moneyham") commenced this action on October 31, 2012 to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Supplemental Social Security benefits. (Doc. 2.) Before the Court are Ms. Moneyham's Motion for Judgment Reversing or Modifying the Decision of the Commissioner and the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. (Docs. 8, 10.) The Court heard oral arguments on the parties' motions on March 17, 2015. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Ms. Moneyham's Motion and grants the Commissioner's Motion. The decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.
I. Procedural History
On August 13, 2009, Ms. Moneyham filed an application for supplemental security benefits, alleging a disability onset of June 15, 2008. (Tr. at 144-46.) Following a denial initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), on May 6, 2010, Ms. Moneyham requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). ( Id. at 108-10.) The hearing occurred on March 25, 2011 ( id. at 114), and in a decision dated April 14, 2011, the ALJ denied Ms. Moneyham's disability application. ( Id. at 9, 23.) On June 15, 2011, Ms. Moneyham requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision ( id. at 7-8), and on August 28, 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. Moneyham had not engaged in substantial activity since the onset date through the date she was last insured (step one); had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder; impulse control disorder; learning problems; and borderline intellectual functioning and anti-social behavior (step two); and that Ms. Moneyham's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a listed impairment (step three). (Tr. at 14.) The ALJ then determined that Ms. Moneyham had the RFC to perform work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a low social, low stress environment. ( Id. at 15.) The ALJ found that Ms. Moneyham had no past relevant work (step four), but considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, a finding of not disabled would be directed by section 204.00 of the Medical Vocational Grid Rules ("Grids") (step five). ( Id. at 22-23.) Because the ALJ concluded that the non-exertional limitations had little effect on the occupational base for unskilled work at all exertional levels, he found Ms. Moneyham not disabled. ( Id. at 23.)
a. The ALJ did not err in finding that Ms. Moneyham's non-exertional limitations did not erode the occupational base for unskilled work.
Ms. Moneyham first takes issue with the ALJ's decision not to obtain vocational testimony. Because she had non-exertional limitations, Ms. Moneyham contends that the ALJ's reliance on the Grids was improper.
At the fifth step of the sequential evaluation, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). When a claimant has non-exertional impairments or a combination of non-exertional and exertional impairments that prevent him or her from performing a full range of work at a given exertional level, the Commissioner generally cannot rely on the Grids alone. Aistrop v. Barnhart, 36 F.App'x 145, 146-47(4th Cir. 2002). Rather, the Commissioner may need to consult a vocational expert to prove that the claimant can perform specific jobs that exist in the national economy. Id. However, a vocational expert need not be consulted if the ALJ determines that the additional limitations have little to no effect on the occupational job base. See Adkins v. Astrue, 2011 WL 652508, at *4 (E.D. Va. Feb. 10, 2011) ("[W]here a claimant's non-exertional limitations have a minimal effect on his exertional occupational base, then a finding guided by the Grids is sufficient, and testimony by a [vocational expert] is unnecessary.")
In this case, the ALJ found that Ms. Moneyham's mental and emotional limitations did not erode the occupational base for unskilled work. The basic demands of unskilled work include the ability to "understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions; to respond appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and usual work situations; and to deal with changes in a routine work setting." Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 85-15, 1985 WL 56857, at *4. Although a substantial loss in a claimant's ability to meet any of these basic abilities would limit the occupational base for unskilled work, the ALJ found that Ms. Moneyham's non-exertional limitations were consistent with the demands of unskilled work. (Tr. at 15, 23.) Therefore, under these circumstances, the ALJ did not err in consulting the Grids and deciding against obtaining testimony from a vocational expert. See Jaynes v. Colvin, No. 1:12-CV-168, 2014 WL 3109243, at *4 (M.D. N.C. July 8, 2014) (limitation to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks ("SRRT") in a low-stress environment with low social interaction did not erode job base for medium work and thus does not prevent an ALJ from relying on the Grids); Livingston v. Colvin, No. 3:13-CV-233, 2014 WL 496484, at *6 (W.D. N.C. Feb. 6, 2014) ("Plaintiff argues that the ALJ finding that her RFC for light work was limited to SRRTs prevented the ALJ from relying on the Grids in determining whether work existed in significant numbers in the national economy that she could perform... A limitation to SRRTs does not prevent an ALJ from relying on the Grids."); Scott v. Cohin, No. 1:12-CV-170, 2013 WL 3927607, at *6 (W.D. N.C. July 29, 2013) ("[L]imitation to simple, unskilled, entry level work that allows for less stress work without public contact or significant interaction with others ...