United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division
Richard L. Voorhees United States District Judge
MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Plaintiff Tammy Lynne
Duckworth's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc.
13) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc.
19). For the reasons that follow, the Plaintiff's Motion
for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 13) is DENIED, the
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 19) is
GRANTED, and the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
2013, Plaintiff Tammy Lynne Duckworth filed an application
for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security
Act, alleging an inability to work due to a disabling
condition commencing on July 13, 2007. (Tr. 58, 207-10). The
Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”
or “Defendant”) initially denied Plaintiff's
application on June 13, 2013 and, upon reconsideration, again
denied the application on August 16, 2013. (Tr. 58, 102-10,
115-23). Plaintiff requested a hearing and, on April 28,
2014, appeared by video conference before Administrative Law
Judge Paul Gaughen (“ALJ Gaughen”). (Tr. 58, 76-100).
During the hearing, Plaintiff amended her disability onset
date to January 25, 2010. (Tr. 58, 78).
a written decision, ALJ Gaughen concluded that Plaintiff was
not disabled. (Tr. 58-69). At Step One, ALJ Gaughen found
that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since her amended alleged disability onset date.
(Tr. 60). At Step Two, ALJ Gaughen found that Plaintiff
suffered from multiple severe impairments, specifically
degenerative disc disease with neural foraminal narrowing but
no stenosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity,
joint arthritis/arthralgia with complaints of widespread
pain, mood disorder NOS, and anxiety disorder NOS. (Tr.
60-61). ALJ Gaughen, however, found that Plaintiff's
alleged impairments of gastroesophageal reflux disease, high
blood pressure, and high cholesterol did not qualify as
severe because they were either controlled by medication or
within normal limits during examinations. Id. At
Step Three, ALJ Gaughen determined that Plaintiff's
conditions did not meet any of the Listings, including
Listings 1.04, 3.02, 12.04, or 12.06. (Tr. 61-62). For
purposes of Listings 12.04 and 12.06, ALJ Gaughen employed
the Psychiatric Review Technique, finding that
Plaintiff's mental impairments caused her mild
limitations in activities of daily living, moderate
limitations in social functioning and with concentration,
pace, and persistence, and that Plaintiff did not suffer any
episodes of decompensation. (Tr. 62; see also Tr.
66-67). ALJ Gaughen also determined that
Plaintiff's obesity, alone or in combination with her
other impairments, did not satisfy or equal a Listing because
Plaintiff “retain[ed] the ability to ambulate
effectively” and her obesity did not so enhance her
other impairments as to rise to the severity of a Listing.
Gaughen then commenced his residual functional capacity
assessment by summarizing Plaintiff's hearing testimony
and Plaintiff's medical records. (Tr. 63-67). ALJ Gaughen
concluded that Plaintiff's testimony was inconsistent
with aspects of her medical records and with her November
2009 function report form. Id. Specifically, ALJ
Gaughen's review of Plaintiff's medical records
revealed that most of Plaintiff's physical examinations
resulted in normal findings with no acute distress. (Tr.
64-65). With respect to Plaintiff's back pain, ALJ
Gaughen noted that the medical records indicated that, as a
result of management through medication, Plaintiff
experienced an 80% decrease in pain in August 2008 and
continued relief from pain in 2011. (Tr. 65). Furthermore, a
March 2008 magnetic resonance imaging (“MRI”)
revealed mild foraminal narrowing at ¶ 4-5 while a
cervical MRI in November 2009 “showed a small
protrusion with no stenosis.” Id. ALJ Gaughen
summarized the doctor notations from Plaintiff's November
2009 visit and MRI by stating, “[i]t was noted that her
examination was fairly benign and the objective MRI findings
showed no significant pathology.” Id. Finally,
with respect to the medical records, ALJ Gaughen noted that
Plaintiff reported to her doctors that she was “walking
often” even after her symptoms worsened following her
running out of pain medication. (Tr. 64). Similarly, as late
as fall 2011, a year and a half after her amended alleged
disability onset date, Plaintiff reported “exercising
by walking regularly.” (Tr. 65). As to Plaintiff's
November 2009 function report form, ALJ Gaughen noted that
Plaintiff indicated she could lift ten pounds, walk sixty
feet, follow instructions, and get along with authority
figures. (Tr. 64). Based on his assessment of the
“entire record, ” ALJ Gaughen concluded that
Plaintiff's physical impairments limited her to work at
the light exertional level with restrictions for (1) a
sit/stand option such that she was only required to stand or
walk for six hours in an eight hour work day and for no more
than two hours at a time; (2) no fast-paced production work
with rigid quotas; (3) no unusual work stressors, including
no exposure to dangerous hazards; (4) no work with mandatory
overtime; and (5) no work without customary work hours and
work breaks. (Tr. 66).
to the impact of Plaintiff's mental limitations, ALJ
Gaughen noted that the majority of the notations in
Plaintiff's medical records reveal a normal mental
status, and that even when Plaintiff reported worsening
depression and anxiety the treating medical doctor noted an
“otherwise normal mental status.” Id.
ALJ Gaughen, however, noted the contrary opinion of
Plaintiff's mental status by Penny Matlock, NP-C, who
diagnosed Plaintiff as suffering from chronic pain syndrome,
anxiety, and depression, and opined that Plaintiff's
conditions caused marked limitations in Plaintiff's
functioning. Id. ALJ Gaughen gave “little
weight” to Matlock's opinion because the opinion
was inconsistent with the rest of Plaintiff's medical
records and because, although Matlock treated Plaintiff, a
nurse practitioner is not an acceptable medical source.
his reasoning for his earlier Psychiatric Review Technique
findings, ALJ Gaughen determined that Plaintiff suffered from
no more than mild limitations in daily living because she
independently initiated a wide range of activities and that
any limitations on daily living were, as reported by
Plaintiff, attributable to her physical impairments rather
than her mental impairments. (Tr. 67). As to social
functioning, ALJ Gaughen found that Plaintiff maintained
meaningful relationships and did not have issues interacting
with her doctors or answering questions at the hearing but
that Plaintiff no longer went outside the house very much.
Id. Based on these findings, ALJ Gaughen concluded
that Plaintiff suffered from moderate limitations in social
functioning. Id. Turning to concentration,
persistence, and pace, ALJ Gaughen noted that Plaintiff's
daily activities demonstrated she had good concentration and
persistence and that Plaintiff reported having no
difficulties paying attention or following instructions.
Id. ALJ Gaughen, however, also found that Plaintiff
would likely struggle with changes to her routine.
Id. Accordingly, ALJ Gaughen concluded that
Plaintiff experienced moderate limitations with respect to
concentration, persistence, and pace. Id. To account
for Plaintiff's mental impairments and the limitations
noted in his Psychiatric Review Technique analysis, ALJ
Gaughen incorporated two restrictions into Plaintiff's
residual functional capacity: (1) no work requiring
sophisticated or higher level social interaction skills, and
(2) no work requiring frequent travel on common carriers to
new and unfamiliar places. Id. ALJ Gaughen, however,
concluded that Plaintiff “could perform work requiring
routine and perfunctory social interaction with others
including the retail public; and could learn and apply to
work new, simple, and moderately detailed instructions of no
more than five to six steps.” Id.
Four, ALJ Gaughen relied on a vocational expert to determine
that Plaintiff, given her residual functional capacity, could
not return to her past relevant work as a home healthcare
aid/nurse assistant, teaching assistant/teacher aide II, or
sanding machine operator/treating engineering helper. (Tr.
68). Proceeding to Step Five and again relying on the
vocational expert, ALJ Gaughen determined that Plaintiff,
however, could perform the work requirements of several jobs
that exist in the national economy, including garment folder,
DICOT § 369.687-018, inspector, DICOT §
669.687-014, and hand packager/inspector-packer, DICOT §
784.687-042. (Tr. 68-69). Accordingly, ALJ Gaughen concluded
that Plaintiff was not disabled for purposes of receiving
disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act.
(Tr. 69). Plaintiff requested review of ALJ Gaughen's
adverse decision before the Appeals Council but the Appeals
Council denied the request. (Tr. 1-7, 54). Plaintiff
initiated this action seeking judicial review of ALJ
Gaughen's decision and both Plaintiff and the
Commissioner have filed their respective motions and
supporting memorandums for a judgment as a matter of law.
(Docs. 13-14, 19-20).
Standard of Review
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.
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
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
Plaintiff is disabled, but whether ALJ ...