United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
RICHARD L. VOORHEES, District Judge.
BEFORE THE COURT are cross-motions for summary judgment filed by William Johnny Martin (Doc. 9) and the Commissioner (Doc. 12). Claimant is appealing the denial of his claim for disability insurance benefits.
I. BACKGROUND OF THE LAW
The Social Security Administration ("SSA") has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining whether an individual is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a) and 416.920(a). If it is determined that a claimant is or is not disabled at one step, the SSA or Administrative Law Judge will issue a decision without proceeding to the next step in the evaluation. A claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is determined after step three has been completed, but before step four is begun, in order to determine what level of physical and mental exertion the claimant can perform at work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a) and § 416.945(a). The ALJ determines the RFC by assessing a claimant's ability to do physical and mental activities on a sustained basis, despite limitations from identified impairments and claimed symptoms that are reasonably consistent with objective medical evidence and supported by other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529, 404.1545, 416.929, and 416.945.
II. ADMINISTRATIVE HISTORY
On December 28, 2010, Claimant protectively filed applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits as well Title XVI supplemental security income. In both applications Claimant alleged disability beginning July 1, 2010. These claims were denied initially, upon reconsideration, and ultimately Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Clinton C. Hicks found Claimant not disabled in a decision issued April 26, 2014. Specifically, at step one, Claimant had not engaged in substantial activity since July 1, 2010. (Tr. 33). At step two, the ALJ found that Claimant had the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), emphysema, and anxiety. (Tr. 33). At step three, the ALJ found that Claimant did not meet the listings. (Tr. 34). The ALJ then assigned Claimant the RFC to
[P]erform a light range of work... but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs; should avoid concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants such as pollutants, smoke, or fumes; should be able to change positions between sitting and standing hourly; and is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a non-production environment.
(Tr. 35). At step four, the ALJ found that Claimant could not perform past relevant work. (Tr. 37). At step five, the ALJ found that considering the Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant in the national economy that the Claimant could perform. (Tr. 37). The ALJ used a vocational expert ("VE") to assist in this inquiry. (Tr. 38). Accordingly, the ALJ found that the Claimant was not under a disability. (Tr. 38).
III. STANDARD OF REVIEW
The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision; and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). The Fourth Circuit has made clear that it is not for a reviewing court to re-weigh the evidence or to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner-so long as that decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (4th Cir.1990); see also, Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Hancock v. Astrue, 657 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). "Substantial evidence has been defined as more than a scintilla and [it] must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401). Ultimately, it is the duty of the Commissioner, not the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979) ("This court does not find facts or try the case de novo when reviewing disability determinations."); Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) ("We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistences in the medical evidence, and that it is the claimant who bears the risk of nonpersuasion."). Indeed, so long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court disagrees with the final outcome. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).
Claimant raises three issues on appeal. The first is whether the ALJ's RFC analysis is supported by substantial evidence. The second is whether the ALJ's credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence. The third is whether the ALJ submitted a complete hypothetical question to the vocational expert ("VE"). The Court will address these contentions in turn.
A. Whether the ALJ's RFC analysis is supported by substantial evidence The vast majority of Claimant's argument rests on the ALJ's treatment of Dr. Auton. Specifically, Claimant argues that the ALJ improperly discredited the opinion of Dr. Auton, a treating physician.
1. Standards for Weighing a Treating Physician's Opinion An ALJ must give controlling weight to the opinion of a claimant's treating physician when the opinion concerns the nature and severity of an impairment, 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)(2). Therefore, a treating physician's opinion will not be entitled to controlling weight if it is unsupported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and/or inconsistent with other ...