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Leonard v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 1, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Joe L. Webester, Judge

         Plaintiff, 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[1] 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.


         Plaintiff 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.)[2] 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.)


         Plaintiff 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.)


         The 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 Cir. 1966)).

         The 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 Cir. 1987).


         The 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[3] 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[4] that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         A. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

         The 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[5] ("RFC") and his vocational abilities. If so, the claimant is not disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.

         Here, 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 19.)

         B. Residual Functional Capacity Determination

         Prior 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.)

         C. Past Relevant Work

         The ALJ found at step four that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work as a police officer and state trooper. (Id. at 18.)

         D. Adjustment to Other Work

         The 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.)

         V. ANALYSIS

         In 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. § 404.1529(b)).[6]

         If the 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[7] 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. 1984).

         Here, 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." (Id.)

         It is 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- ...

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