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Adkins v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

March 21, 2017

ROBIN A. ADKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSINER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, [1]Defendant.

          ORDER

          Richard L. Voorhess United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 9, 14). For the reasons that follow, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 9) is DENIED, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 14) is DENIED, the decision of the Commissioner is VACATED, and this matter is REMANDED for a new hearing to be held in a manner consistent with this order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On March 2, 2011, Plaintiff Robin A. Adkins filed applications for disability insurance benefits and for supplemental security income under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act, alleging an inability to work due to a disabling condition commencing on May 24, 2010. (Tr. 17, 75-81). The Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) initially denied Plaintiff's applications on July 25, 2011 and, upon reconsideration, again denied the applications on December 12, 2011. (Tr. 17, 29-31, 49-50, 57-58). Plaintiff requested a hearing and, on June 14, 2013, appeared before Administrative Law Judge Wendell M. Sims (“ALJ Sims”) for said hearing. (Tr. 17, 663-94).

         Through a written decision, ALJ Sims concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 17-28). At Step One, ALJ Sims found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 19). At Step Two, ALJ Sims found that Plaintiff suffered from multiple severe impairments, specifically diabetes mellitus, various respiratory impairments, migraines, mild degenerative disc disease, kidney problems, knee pain, and various mental disorders.[2] Id. At Step Three, ALJ Sims first concluded that none of Plaintiff's physical impairments, or a combination thereof, met the Listings in 20 CFR Part 404. (Tr. 19-21). Then ALJ Sims considered the impact Plaintiff's mental impairments had on her activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, persistence, and pace, as well as whether Plaintiff's mental impairments manifested in repeated episodes of decompensation. (Tr. 20). As to Plaintiff's activities of daily living and social functioning, ALJ Sims found that Plaintiff only experienced mild restrictions or difficulties. Id. As to Plaintiff's concentration, persistence, or pace, ALJ Sims noted Dr. Brantley's conclusion that she had the “ability to concentrate well enough to perform simple repetitive tasks . . . within normal limits” but concluded, without elaboration, that she had “moderate difficulties” in this area. Id. Finally, as to episodes of decompensation, ALJ Sims concluded that although Plaintiff experienced one or two episodes of decompensation, no episode was of sufficient duration for the episode to meet the threshold for counting for purposes of the Listings. Id. Therefore, with Plaintiff presenting with only moderate difficulties in one area and no episodes of decompensation, ALJ Sims concluded that Plaintiff's mental impairments did not meet the Listings. Id.

         ALJ Sims then commenced his residual functional capacity assessment by summarizing Plaintiff's hearing testimony and Plaintiff's medical records. (Tr. 20-27). ALJ Sims concluded that Plaintiff's testimony was inconsistent with aspects of her medical records and that Plaintiff was not credible regarding the basis for her termination from her prior job, her daily activities, and the trajectory of her symptoms since May 2010. (Tr. 27). With respect to her physical limitations, ALJ Sims concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work with restrictions for only occasionally climbing ladders and for avoiding concentrated exposure to humidity, extreme heat, fumes, and hazards. (Tr. 21). To address Plaintiff's mental limitations, ALJ Sims included a restriction limiting Plaintiff to “simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a stable environment.” (Tr. 21, 26). At Step Four, ALJ Sims relied on his residual functional capacity assessment and on vocational expert testimony to conclude that Plaintiff could return to her previous employment as a cashier, specifically the position of Cashier II found in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DICOT”) at § 211.462-010. (Tr. 27-28). Accordingly, ALJ Sims concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 28).

         Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review ALJ Sims's adverse decision and presented the Appeals Council with additional evidence, including a “mental residual functional capacity questionnaire” completed by Pamela Hollis, a treating licensed clinical social worker. (Tr. 10, 13, 657-62). The Appeals Council considered Plaintiff's additional evidence but denied Plaintiff's request for review of ALJ Sims's adverse decision. (Tr. 6, 9-10). Plaintiff timely filed this action seeking judicial review of the denial of benefits. In her memorandum in support of her motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff raises four assignments of error with the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits: (1) ALJ Sims failed to perform a function-by-function analysis relative to Plaintiff's mental impairments and limitations; (2) the physical limitations in the residual functional capacity adopted by ALJ Sims are not supported by substantial evidence; (3) remand is necessary for fact finding on the additional evidence considered by the Appeals Council because the evidence conflicts with ALJ Sims's decision and addresses evidentiary gaps with respect to limitations resulting from Plaintiff's mental impairments; and (4) ALJ Sims failed to ask the vocational expert about an apparent conflict between the expert's testimony and the DICOT, being an apparent conflict between the reasoning level assigned to the occupation of Cashier II in DICOT and the limitation in Plaintiff's residual functional capacity for “simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a stable environment.” (Doc 10 at 5-23).

         II.DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         Pursuant 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 her decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's determination may not be overturned.

         While 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 Cir. 1988).

         “In 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 Adkins is disabled, but whether ALJ Sims's conclusion that Adkins is not disabled is explained and supported by substantial evidence and that such decision was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.

         B. Analysis

         The Court finds Plaintiff's fourth assignment of error-that ALJ Sims erred at Step Four by failing to ask the vocational expert to explain an apparent conflict between the expert's testimony and the DICOT-dispositive as to the relief of remand that Plaintiff seeks in her memorandum in support of her motion for summary judgment. At Step Four of the disability determination, the administrative law judge must determine whether the claimant can return to her past relevant work. Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 00-4p, 2000 WL 1898704 at *1. To assist with the question of whether a claimant's residual functional capacity permits her to return to her past relevant work and to address “complex vocational issues, ” an administrative law judge may rely on the testimony of a vocational expert. Id. at 2; see ...


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