United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
RICHARD L. VOORHEES, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on cross-motions for summary
judgment. (Docs. 13, 18). For the reasons that follow, the
Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 13) is
DENIED, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc.
18) is GRANTED, and the decision of the Commissioner is
2014, Plaintiff Robin Porter protectively filed a Title II
application for disability insurance benefits, alleging a
disability onset date of June 16, 2013. (Tr. 11; Tr. 184-87).
The Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner” or “Defendant”)
initially denied Plaintiff's application in August 2014
and, upon reconsideration, again denied the application in
November 2014. (Tr. 11; Tr. 70-78, 80-92). Plaintiff
requested a hearing before an administrative law judge. (Tr.
124-25). On July 9, 2015, Plaintiff appeared before
Administrative Law Judge Todd D. Jacobson (“ALJ
Jacobson”) for her hearing. (Tr. 37-67).
Plaintiff's hearing, ALJ Jacobson issued a decision
concluding that Plaintiff was “not disabled”
within the meaning of the Social Security Act for purposes of
receiving Title II benefits. (Tr. 11-29). At Step One, ALJ
Jacobson found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date.
(Tr. 13). At Step Two, ALJ Jacobson concluded that
Plaintiff's lumbar spine compression fracture at ¶
2, right fifth metacarpal base intraarticular fracture, left
knee anterior cruciate ligament tear (status post repair),
and obesity qualified as severe impairments but that
Plaintiff's headaches, diverticulitis, anxiety, and
depressive disorders only imposed mild limitations on her
daily activities and did not qualify as severe impairments.
(Tr. 13-17). In lieu of a Step Three analysis, ALJ Jacobson
noted that Plaintiff conceded that none of her impairments,
or a combination of her impairments, equaled a listing in 20
C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 17). After
discussing Plaintiff's medical records, the opinions of
the examining and non-examining consultative doctors, and the
third-party function report completed by Plaintiff's
mother, ALJ Jacobson concluded that Plaintiff had a residual
functional capacity permitting her to perform light work with
a sit/stand option every thirty minutes and restrictions for
frequent handling and fingering in the right upper extremity,
occasional climbing, balancing, stooping, crouching,
kneeling, and crawling, and no concentrated exposure to
moving machines and unprotected heights. (Tr. 17-27). ALJ
Jacobson then discussed Plaintiff's past work experience,
relying on testimony from a vocational expert to classify
Plaintiff's past employment as that of a meter reader,
DICOT 209.567-010, and that of a meter repairer, DICOT
710.281-034, and to conclude that Plaintiff could not return
to either of her prior positions. (Tr. 27, see also
Tr. 56). At Step Five, however, ALJ Jacobson, again with the
assistance of a vocational expert, determined that Plaintiff
was not disabled because her residual functional capacity and
transferable job skills were sufficient to allow her to gain
employment as a bench assembler, DICOT 706.684-022, nut and
bolt assembler, DICOT 929.587-010, or office helper, DICOT
239.567-010. (Tr. 27-28).
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of
ALJ Jacobson's decision, rendering the Commissioner's
unfavorable determination of benefits final. (Tr. 1-3, 7).
Plaintiff timely commenced this action seeking judicial
review of the Commissioner's denial of benefits and the
parties have filed their cross motions for summary judgment.
(See Docs. 1, 13, 18). Through her memorandum in
support of her motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff raises
two related assignments of error stemming from ALJ
Jacobson's assessment of the limitations placed on
Plaintiff as a result of her left anterior cruciate ligament
injury: (1) ALJ Jacobson's residual functional capacity
assessment is not supported by substantial evidence because
ALJ Jacobson failed to account for Plaintiff's testimony
that she relies on a cane when standing and ambulating; and
(2) ALJ Jacobson erred at Step Five because Plaintiff's
use of a cane prevents her from doing “light
work” or performing the duties of a bench assembler,
nut and bolt assembler, or office helper. (Doc. 14 at 3-6).
In response, the Commissioner argues that ALJ Jacobson
properly accounted for Plaintiff's left anterior cruciate
ligament injury through his inclusion of a sit/stand option
in the residual functional capacity and that ALJ
Jacobson's discussion of Plaintiff's medical records
and Plaintiff's mother's third-party function report
provides substantial evidence for his determination. (Doc. 19
Standard of Review
to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and
§ 1383(c)(3), this Court's review of a final
decision of the Commissioner is limited to: (1) whether
substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's
decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390,
401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the
correct legal standards. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
“The findings of the Commissioner . . . as to any fact,
if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . .
. .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Thus, if this Court finds
that the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and
that his decision is supported by substantial evidence, the
Commissioner's determination may not be overturned.
substantial evidence is not a “large or considerable
amount of evidence, ” Pierce v. Underwood, 487
U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is “more than a scintilla and
it must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a
fact to be established.” Smith v. Heckler, 782
F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (brackets and internal
quotation marks omitted). Critically, “[t]he
substantial evidence standard ‘presupposes a zone of
choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way,
without interference by the courts. An administrative
decision is not subject to reversal merely because
substantial evidence would have supported an opposite
decision.'” Dunn v. Colvin, 607 F.
App'x 264, 266 (4th Cir. 2015) (ellipsis omitted)
(quoting Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th
reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[Commissioner].” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d
171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (brackets and internal quotation
marks omitted). Consequently, as long as the judgment is
explained and supported by substantial evidence, this Court
must accept the Commissioner's decision, even if this
Court would reach an opposite conclusion or weigh the
evidence differently if it were conducting a de novo
review of the record. See Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
Therefore, the issue before this Court is not whether Porter
is disabled, but whether ALJ Jacobson's
conclusion that Porter is not disabled is explained
and supported by substantial evidence and that such decision
was reached based upon a correct application of the
Plaintiff's Alleged Use of a Cane
argues that ALJ Jacobson did not take Plaintiff's
testimony about using a cane into account when conducting his
residual functional capacity assessment and concluding that a
sit/stand option, rather than a limitation for the use of a
cane, appropriately accounted for her impairment relative to
her left anterior cruciate ligament injury. (Doc. 14 at 3-5).
Before determining at Step Four whether a claimant can
perform her past relevant work, the administrative law judge
must conduct a residual functional capacity assessment.
Mascio, 780 F.3d 632, 635 (4th Cir. 2015). Residual
functional capacity is defined as “‘an
administrative assessment of the extent to which an
individual's medically determinable impairment(s),
including any related symptoms, such as pain, may cause
physical or mental limitations or restrictions that may
affect his or her capacity to do work-related physical and
mental activities.'” Id. at 639 (quoting
Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p, 61 Fed.
Reg. 34, 474, 34, 475 (July 2, 1996)) (emphasis omitted). In
assessing a claimant's residual functional capacity, an
administrative law judge “‘must first identify
the individual's functional limitations or restrictions
and assess his or her work-related abilities on a
function-by-function basis, including the functions'
listed in the regulations.” Id. at 636
(quoting SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. at 34, 475). Furthermore, an
administrative law judge's “residual functional
capacity ‘assessment must include a narrative
discussion describing how the evidence supports each
conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory
findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities,
observations).'” Id. (quoting SSR 96-8p,
61 Fed. Reg. at 34, 478). Finally, the administrative law
judge's “residual functional capacity
‘assessment must be based on all of the
relevant evidence in the case record' . . . includ[ing]
‘effects of symptoms . . . that are reasonably
attributed to a medically determinable
impairment.'” Id. at 639 (quoting SSR
96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. at 34, 477) (emphasis in original).
hearing, Plaintiff testified that, as a result of back pain
and knee pain, she experiences difficulty walking very far
and tries to “stay close to stuff” when walking.
(Tr. 46-48). Plaintiff relayed that, in November 2014, she
fell down some patio steps, reinjuring the anterior cruciate
ligament in her left knee. (Tr. 48-49). Plaintiff further
testified that, since her fall in November 2014, she ...