United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
JONATHAN L. LEONARD, Plaintiff,
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Jonathan L. Leonard, brought this action pursuant to Section
205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as
amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain review of a
final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying his claims for a Period of
Disability ("POD") and Disability Insurance
Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act. The
Court has before it the certified administrative record and
cross-motions for judgment.
filed an application for a POD and DIB in January of 2012
alleging a disability onset date of January 22, 2010. (Tr.
11, 175-78, 191.) The application was denied initially and
again upon reconsideration. (Id. at 115-118,
120-23.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (id. at
124-25) and at the March 20, 2014 hearing were Plaintiff, his
attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE").
(Id. at 25-67.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff
was not disabled under the Act. (Id. at 11-20.) On
July 26, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request
for review, making the ALJ's decision the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review.
(Id. at 1-5.)
was 44 years old on the alleged disability onset date.
(Id. at 18.) He had at least a high school education
and was able to communicate in English. (Id.)
STANDARD FOR REVIEW
Commissioner held that Plaintiff was not under a disability
within the meaning of the Act. Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final
decision is specific and narrow. Smith v. Schweiker,
795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). This Court's review of
that decision is limited to determining whether there is
substantial evidence in the record to support the
Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g);
Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992);
Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir.
1990). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence
as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (citing
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It
"consists of more than a mere scintilla" "but
may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Id.
(quoting Lam v. Cekbresge, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th
Commissioner must make findings of fact and resolve conflicts
in the evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing
King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir.
1979)). The Court does not conduct a de novo review of the
evidence nor of the Commissioner's findings.
Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. In reviewing for
substantial evidence, the Court does not undertake to
re-weigh conflicting evidence, to make credibility
determinations, or to substitute its judgment for that of the
Commissioner. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th
Cir. 1996) (citing Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456).
"Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to
differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the
responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner]
(or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ)."
Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (quoting Walker v.
Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)). The denial of
benefits will be reversed only if no reasonable mind could
accept the record as adequate to support the determination.
See Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The issue before
the Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled,
but whether the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff is
not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was
reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.
See id.; Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th
THE ALJ'S DISCUSSION
Social Security Regulations define "disability" for
the purpose of obtaining disability benefits as the
"inability to do any substantial gainful activity by
reason of any medically determinable physical or mental
impairment which can be expected to result in death
or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a
continuous period of not less than 12 months." 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1505(a); see also 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(a). To meet this definition, a claimant must have a
severe impairment which makes it impossible to do previous
work or any other substantial gainful activity that exists
in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a);
see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
The Five-Step Sequential Analysis
Commissioner follows a five-step sequential analysis to
ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set
forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. See Albright v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2
(4th Cir. 1999). The ALJ must determine:
(1) Whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity (i.e., whether the claimant is working). If
so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends.
(2) Whether the claimant has a severe impairment. If not,
then the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends.
(3) Whether the impairment meets or equals to medical
criteria of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, which
sets forth a list of impairments that warrant a finding of
disability without considering vocational criteria. If so,
the claimant is disabled and the inquiry is halted.
(4) Whether the impairment prevents the claimant from
performing past relevant work. If not, the claimant is not
disabled and the inquiry is halted.
(5) Whether the claimant is able to perform any other work
considering both his residual functional
capacity ("RFC") and his vocational
abilities. If so, the claimant is not disabled.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of
January 22, 2010. (Tr. 13.) The ALJ next found in step two
that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease, a hand injury, hypertension,
carpel tunnel syndrome, DPN, and obesity. (Id.) At
step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or
medically equal to, one listed in Appendix 1. (Id.
at 14.) At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could
not return to his past relevant work. (Id. at 18.)
At step five, the ALJ determined that considering Plaintiffs
age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs in
the national economy that he could perform. (Id. at
Residual Functional Capacity Determination
to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiffs RFC based on his
evaluation of the evidence. (Id. at 14-18.) Based on
the evidence as a whole, the ALJ determined that:
[t]he claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1576(b) except he
requires the option to sit and stand at will, and he cannot
twist or turn about the back continuously. The claimant can
frequently, not constantly, finger and handle. He should
never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, but he can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs.
(Id. at 14.)
Past Relevant Work
found at step four that Plaintiff could not perform his past
relevant work as a police officer and state trooper.
(Id. at 18.)
Adjustment to Other Work
claimant bears the initial burden of proving the existence of
a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(5); 20 C.F.R. §
404.1512; Smith v. Califano, 592 F.2d 1235, 1236
(4th Cir. 1979). If the claimant has established at step four
that he cannot do any work he has done in the past because of
his severe impairments, the burden shifts to the Commissioner
at step five to show that jobs exist in significant numbers
in the national economy which the claimant could perform
consistent with his RFC, age, education, and past work
experience. Hunter, 993 F.2d at 35; Wilson v.
Califano, 617 F.2d 1050, 1053 (4th Cir. 1980). The ALJ
found here that given Plaintiffs age, education, work
experience, and RFC, there were jobs in the national economy
that he could perform, such as clerk, ticket taker, and toll
bridge attendant. (Tr. 19.)
pertinent part, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ materially
erred in assessing his credibility. (Docket Entries 9 at
13-12 and 12 at 5-10.) The Court agrees for the following
reasons. More specifically, Craig v. Chater provides
a two-part test for evaluating a claimant's statements
about symptoms. "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 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing 20 C.F.R. §
ALJ determines that such an impairment exists, the second
part of the test then requires him to consider all available
evidence, including the claimant's statements about pain,
in order to determine whether the claimant is disabled.
Id. at 595-96. While the ALJ must consider a
claimant's statements and other subjective evidence at
step two, he need not credit them insofar as they conflict
with the objective medical evidence or to the extent that the
underlying impairment could not reasonably be expected to
cause the symptoms alleged. Id. Where the ALJ has
considered the relevant factors and heard the claimant's
testimony and observed his demeanor, the ALJ's
credibility determination is entitled to deference.
Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir.
the ALJ stated that he had "careful[ly]
consider[ed]" the evidence and found that Plaintiffs
"medically determinable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause the alleged symptoms[.]" (Tr. at 15.)
The ALJ therefore discharged his duty under the first step of
the Craig analysis. Second, at step-two of the
Craig analysis, the ALJ decided that Plaintiffs
"statements concerning the intensity, persistence and
limiting effects of these symptoms are not entirely credible
for the reasons explained in this decision."
at this point that the ALJ erred. Specifically, Plaintiff
contends-and the Court agrees-that the ALJ's decision to
partially discount his credibility regarding the purported
side-effects of his medication is unsupported by substantial
evidence. (Docket Entry 9 at 14- ...