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Duckworth v. Berryhill

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

April 26, 2017

TAMMY LYNNE DUCKWORTH, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Richard L. Voorhees United States District Judge

         THIS 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.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In May 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”).[1] (Tr. 58, 76-100). During the hearing, Plaintiff amended her disability onset date to January 25, 2010. (Tr. 58, 78).

         Through 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).[2] 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. (Tr. 61).

         ALJ 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).

         Turning 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. Id.

         Providing 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.

         At Step 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).

         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 Plaintiff is disabled, but whether ALJ ...


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