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Crittenton-Cates v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

April 26, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Joe L. Webster Judge

         Plaintiff, Lisa Crittenton-Cates, 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 her 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 DIB and a POD in April of 2011 alleging a disability onset date of November 15, 2007. (Tr. 228-31.)[2] The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id. at 65-93.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") and at the March 11, 2013 hearing were Plaintiff and her attorney. (Id. at 27-41.) The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Id. at 98-110.) On October 18, 2013, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiffs request for review and remanded the matter to the ALJ. (Id. at 117-118.) A different ALJ held a new hearing on February 27, 2014, at which Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") were present. (Id. at 42-63.) Plaintiff also amended her onset date to March 31, 2011. (Id. at 14, 46.) The ALJ again determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 14-26.) On August 15, 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.)


         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). Review is limited to determining if 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); Bays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court does not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The issue before the Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled but whether the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Id.


         The ALJ followed the well-established five-step[3] sequential analysis to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. See Albright v. Comm'rof Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The ALJ reached the fifth step, at which point he determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from March 31, 2011, the amended alleged onset date, through December 31, 2012, the date last insured. (Tr. 26.)

         More specifically, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period. (Id. at 16.) The ALJ next found in step two that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, leg edema, nerve damage in legs, bulging disc in neck, diabetes mellitus, pelvic enthesopathy, recurrent rash, and depressive disorder. (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 17.)

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC") and concluded that Plaintiff retained the ability to perform light work and that

she was capable of lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, could stand and walk for six hours in an eight-hour workday, and could sit for six hours in an eight-hour workday. The claimant could not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, and could only occasionally climb stairs. She did not require an assistive device for balancing or walking. The claimant could do work involving only three to four step operations in a non-quota production environment. Finally, she could have only frequent contact with the public.

(Tr. 19.) At step four, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 24.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs in the national economy which she could perform. (Id. at 25-26.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asks this Court to reverse the decision of the Commissioner, and in support of her request, she makes several arguments. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating and weighing various medical opinions. (Docket Entry 9 at 4.) Second, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to account for her moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace ("CPP"). (Id. at 9-10.) Third, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ erred in assessing her RFC. (Id. at 10-11.) Lastly, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in his credibility analysis. (Id. at 11.) For the following reasons, these objections lack merit.

         1. The ALJ properly evaluated the opinions of the medical care providers.

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical opinions of (1) rheumatologist Dr. Amanda Nelson, M.D., (2) primary care physician Dr. Daniel Crummett, M.D., and (3) consulting examiner Dr. Constant Masere, M.D. (Id. at 4-9.)

         The treating source rule requires an ALJ to give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). The rule also recognizes, however, that not all treating sources or treating source opinions merit the same deference. The nature and extent of each treatment relationship appreciably tempers the weight an ALJ affords an opinion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)(ii). Moreover, as subsections (2) through (4) of the rule describe in detail, a treating source's opinion, like all medical opinions, deserves deference only if well-supported by medical signs and laboratory findings and consistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(4). "[I]f a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight." Craig, 76 F.3d at 590.

         Dr. Nelson

         Dr. Nelson, Plaintiffs rheumatologist, concluded on February 28, 2013 in a pre-printed form, that because of pain and fatigue Plaintiff suffered from the occasional inability to concentrate on even simple, routine work tasks, and that because of her impairments or treatment Plaintiff would likely miss work three days per month. (Tr. 645, 644-646.) Dr. Nelson also initialed a check list form on March 13, 2013 listing some of the evidence from the record and indicating that she relied on this evidence in rendering her February 28 opinion. (Tr. 647.)

         The ALJ specifically considered this opinion and gave it "little weight." (Id. at 23.) In support, the ALJ discussed Dr. Nelson's opinion, stating that:

[w]hile Dr. Nelson is a treating source, she wrote her opinion on a form, and did not provide detailed reasoning regarding the claimant's specific limitations. . . . Dr. Nelson based her opinion on the claimant's allegations -she stated that the claimant "reports fatigue, which is a common complaint" with fibromyalgia (Exhibit 19F, pg. 1). While Dr. Nelson stated that the claimant experienced chronic pain due to fibromyalgia, she also reported that the claimant's primary care provider would "be better able to comment on her pain symptoms" (Exhibit 19F, pg. 2). The undersigned has considered Dr. Nelson's statements that x-rays taken in November 2013 revealed an increase in the size of entheosophytes in her pelvis and feet, but notes that this increase took place after the date last insured, and was only mild during the relevant period (Exhibit 25F).


         The ALJ's decision to afford Dr. Nelson's opinion "little weight" is supported by substantial evidence. First, Dr. Nelson's opinion, described above, was rendered on preprinted forms in a conclusory fashion, providing little explanation for her opinions. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(3) (stating that the better explanation a source provides for an opinion, the more weight the Commissioner gives that opinion); Mason v. Shalala,994 F.2d 1058, 1065 (3d Cir. 1993) ("Form ...

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