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Lantrip v. Berryhill

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

March 28, 2017

REBECCA LANTRIP, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSINER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Richard L. Voorhees United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on cross-motions for summary judgment. (Docs. 10, 12). For the reasons that follow, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 10) is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART, the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 12) 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

         In December 2012, Plaintiff Rebecca Lantrip 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 October 1, 2011. (Tr. 18, 197-207). The Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) initially denied Plaintiff's applications on April 19, 2013 and, upon reconsideration, again denied the applications on June 24, 2013. (Tr. 18, 73-134, 137-47, 150-67). Plaintiff requested a hearing and, on February 14, 2014, appeared before Administrative Law Judge John L. McFadyen (“ALJ McFadyen”) for said hearing. (Tr. 18, 51-72, 168-69).

         Through a written decision, ALJ McFadyen concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 18-30). At Step One, ALJ McFadyen found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 20). At Step Two, ALJ McFadyen found that Plaintiff suffered from multiple severe impairments, specifically degeneration of the cervical spine, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Bipolar II Disorder, and a history of Generalized Anxiety. Id. Proceeding to Step Three, ALJ McFadyen noted that Plaintiff did not argue that she was disabled for purposes of this Step and concluded that none of Plaintiff's severe impairments, or a combination thereof, satisfied the Listings in 20 CFR Part 404. (Tr. 21-22). In reaching this conclusion, ALJ McFadyen, applying the psychiatric review technique, determined that Plaintiff's mental impairments did not result in any marked restrictions or episodes of decompensation, but did note that Plaintiff experienced moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence or pace.[1] (Tr. 21).

         ALJ McFadyen then commenced his residual functional capacity assessment by summarizing Plaintiff's hearing testimony and medical records. (Tr. 20-28). Relevant to the assignment of errors Plaintiff raises before this Court, ALJ McFadyen discussed medical records showing that Plaintiff was diagnosed with Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder II, and ADHD. (Tr. 24, 28). The medical records documented Plaintiff's reports of being distracted, having poor focus and memory loss, and experiencing racing thoughts and increased impulsivity. (Tr. 24-25). The medical records also included findings that Plaintiff was “easily distracted and hyperactive, ” and exhibited “an irritable/dysphoric mood, pressured speech, and interrupted frequently.” (Tr. 24, 28). The medical records, however, noted an improvement in Plaintiff's condition following the prescribing of Tegretol, that Plaintiff did not exhibit any signs of depression, anxiety, or agitation between December 22, 2012 and April 18, 2013, and that Plaintiff declined a recommendation by Julie Todd, M.D., a family medicine physician, that she attend behavioral counseling. (Tr. 25, 28). Finally, one of Dr. Todd's notations suggested that Plaintiff exaggerated and perseverated past elements of her health and the way people had treated her in the past. (Tr. 28).

         Comparing his review of the medical records and Plaintiff's statements about her activities to Plaintiff's testimony, ALJ McFadyen concluded that Plaintiff was not entirely credible and that Plaintiff only experienced moderate difficulties with respect to concentration, persistence, and pace. Id. To account for Plaintiff's moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace, ALJ McFadyen included a restriction in Plaintiff's residual functional capacity limiting Plaintiff to jobs requiring only “entry-level, unskilled, simple, and repetitive tasks.” Id. Although ALJ McFadyen found that Plaintiff could perform medium work, he concluded that, for purposes of Step Four, the restriction for “entry-level, unskilled, simple, and repetitive tasks” prevented Plaintiff from performing any of her past relevant work.[2] Id. At Step Five, ALJ McFadyen, relying exclusively on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines, concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled because the restriction for “entry-level, unskilled, simple, and repetitive tasks” had “little or no effect on the occupational base of unskilled medium work.” (Tr. 29).

         Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review ALJ McFadyen's adverse decision but the Appeals Council denied review. (Tr. 1-14). Plaintiff filed this action seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits. In her motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff seeks a reversal of the Commissioner's adverse benefits decision or, in the alternative, a remand of this matter for a new hearing. (Doc. 10). Plaintiff's memorandum in support of her motion for summary judgment raises two related assignments of error: (1) ALJ McFadyen erred in evaluating Plaintiff's mental limitations because a restriction for “entry-level, unskilled, simple, and repetitive tasks” does not account for moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace; and (2) ALJ McFadyen erred by not consulting the vocational expert at Step Five given the nonexertional limitations stemming from Plaintiff's moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace. (Doc. 11 at 3-7). In response, the Commissioner argues that ALJ McFadyen supported his residual functional capacity assessment by relying on Plaintiff's medical records, the opinions of the state agency consultants, and the improvement in Plaintiff's condition attributable to medication to explain why a restriction for “entry-level, unskilled, simple, and repetitive tasks” adequately accounted for Plaintiff's moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace. (Doc. 13 at 5-8). In reply, Plaintiff argues that ALJ McFadyen relied on Plaintiff's medical record to discount her claim that she experienced more than moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, and pace rather than to explain why the restriction adequately accounted for her moderate difficulties. (Doc. 14 at 1-3). Plaintiff also argues, in reply, that ALJ McFadyen's citation to the opinions of the state agency consultants cannot serve as a substitute for ALJ McFadyen independently evaluating the evidence. Id. at 2-3.

         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 Lantrip is disabled, but whether ALJ ...


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