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Dowell v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

April 2, 2015

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


LORETTA C. BIGGS, District Judge.

Plaintiff Caprice W. Dowell ("Ms. Dowell") commenced this action on September 10, 2012, to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Social Security disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, as amended. (Doc. 1 (Compl.) ¶ 1.) Before the Court are Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment Reversing Judgment of the Commissioner or Remanding the Cause for Rehearing (Doc. 9) and the Commissioner's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 11). The administrative record has been certified to the Court for review. The Court heard oral argument on the parties' motions on March 3, 2015. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies Defendant Commissioner's motion and grants Ms. Dowell's motion to the extent it seeks reversal and remand for a new hearing to the Commissioner.

I. Procedural History

On March 17, 2009, Ms. Dowell filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income, alleging a disability beginning January 9, 2009. (Tr. at 101, 108, 126.[1]) Following a denial initially and upon reconsideration by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), Ms. Dowell requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") on October 30, 2009. (Id. at 92.) The hearing occurred on January 20, 2011. (Id. at 10.) The ALJ denied Ms. Dowell's application on January 27, 2011. (Id. at 10-18.) The Appeals Council denied her request for review on July 10, 2012 ( id. at 1-5), making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On September 10, 2012, Ms. Dowell filed the present action. (Doc. 1.)

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, 472 (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 472. 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 sequential 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 her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy." Id. 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. 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), 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. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472-73 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)).

Here, the ALJ found that Ms. Dowell: (1) had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date (step one); (2) had the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia and depression (step two); and (3) had impairments, alone or in combination, that did not meet or equal a listed impairment (step three). (Tr. at 12.) The ALJ then determined Ms. Dowell had the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of unskilled medium work with the following limitations: can stand and walk for eight hours in an eight-hour workday; can sit for eight hours in an eight-hour workday; can lift/carry and push/pull 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; and, as to her mental capacity, can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks. (Id. at 13.) The ALJ determined that Ms. Dowell was capable of performing her past work as a nursing assistant and, therefore, was not disabled. (Id. at 17.) Alternatively, the ALJ concluded that if Ms. Dowell were incapable of returning to her past work, then at step five, there were other jobs that existed in the national economy that she could perform. (Id. at 17-18.) Based on the foregoing findings, the ALJ determined that Ms. Dowell was not disabled. (Id. at 18 . )

IV. Discussion

Ms. Dowell asserts three grounds in support of her motion: (1) the ALJ did not properly evaluate her credibility; (2) the ALJ's residual functional capacity finding is not supported by substantial evidence; and (3) the ALJ erred in using medical-vocational guidelines to deny her claim at step five. (Doc. 9 at 1.) Because the Court concludes that a reversal and remand for a new hearing is warranted based on Ms. Dowell's RFC argument, the Court will only address her second argument.

Ms. Dowell challenges the ALJ's RFC determination, contending that it is not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Ms. Dowell asserts that the ALJ's RFC finding led to the determination that she could return to her past work as a nursing assistant at step four or, in the alternative, retained the ability to perform other jobs that exist in the national economy at step five. According to Ms. Dowell, these improper findings reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of fibromyalgia, particularly as it relates to claims of pain and difficulty with daily tasks. ( See Doc. 10 at 6-7.)

To determine the RFC, the ALJ considers those impairments supported by the objective medical evidence in the record as well as those impairments that are based on the claimant's subjective complaints. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545, 404.1529, 416.945, 416.929. In evaluating a claimant's subjective complaints such as pain, the ALJ employs a two-step process. See Social Security Ruling ("SSR") 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186 ("Evaluation of Symptoms in Disability Claims: Assessing the Credibility of an Individual's Statements"). (Tr. at 13-16.) "First, there must be objective medical evidence showing the existence of a medical impairment(s) which results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities and which could reasonably be expected to produce the pain or other symptoms alleged.'" Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589, 594-95 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(b)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). If the first step is satisfied, as it was in this case, the ALJ considers the intensity and persistence of pain and the extent to which it affects a claimant's ability to work. The ALJ "must take into account not only the claimant's statements about her pain, but also all the available evidence, '... and any other evidence relevant to the severity of the impairment, such as evidence of the claimant's daily activities, specific descriptions of the pain, and any medical treatment taken to alleviate it." Craig, 76 F.3d at 595 (internal citations omitted) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.929(c)(3), 404.1529(c)(3)).

"Numerous courts have recognized that fibromyalgia's symptoms are entirely subjective and [that] there are no laboratory tests that can confirm the presence or severity of the syndrome.'" McIntire v. Colvin, No. 3:13-CV-143, 2015 WL 401007, at *41 (N.D.W.Va. Jan. 28, 2015) (alteration in original) (quoting Stahlman v. Astrue, No. 3:10-CV-475, 2011 WL 2471546 (E.D.Va. May 17, 2011)); see also Ellis v. Colvin, No. 5:13-CV-00043, 2014 WL 2862703, at *8 (W.D.Va. June 24, 2014); Loving v. Astrue, No. 3:11-CV-411-HEH, 2012 WL 4329283, at *5 (E.D.Va. Sept. 20, 2012). The primary symptom of fibromyalgia is chronic, widespread pain. Johnson v. Astrue, 597 F.3d 409, 414 (1st Cir. 2009). Moreover, as the Second Circuit explained, "physical examinations will usually yield ...

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