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Lewis v. Colvin

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

May 30, 2017

PAMELA LEE LEWIS, Plaintiff,
v.
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Pamela L. Lewis' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11), filed on October 27, 2016, and Defendant Commissioner of Social Security Carolyn W. Colvin's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12), filed on December 22, 2016. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”).

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11), GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12), and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 4, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for DIB and SSI benefits alleging disability due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, manic depression, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, and bursitis in the knees and hips. (Tr. 79-150, 206-20). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 151-56, 161-69), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 44). The hearing commenced on October 2, 2014, and on December 17, 2014, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 22-33, 44-78).

         The ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 22-33). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date and that she had severe impairments of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, personality disorder, and obesity (Tr. 24); however, those impairments did not meet or medically equal a per se disabled medical listing under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (Tr. 24-6). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

[T]he claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, scaffolds, ramps, or stairs. However, although she can occasionally stoop, she can never crouch, kneel, or crawl. The claimant is limited to frequent bilateral handling and fingering and should avoid even moderate exposure to environmental irritants such as fumes, odors and gases. She must avoid concentrated use of moving machinery and exposure to unprotected heights. The claimant is limited to work that involves simple, routine and repetitive tasks performed in an environment free of fast-paced production requirements. This work can involve only simple work related decisions and with few, if any, work place changes with no interaction with the public.

(Tr. 26). Nevertheless, in response to a hypothetical that factored in the above limitations, a vocational expert identified various jobs Plaintiff could perform that were available in significant numbers in the economy. (Tr. 32-3). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 33).

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied the request for review on April 14, 2016. (Tr. 1-6). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision is not based on proper legal standards and is not supported by substantial evidence as 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) requires.

         II.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 of Social Security 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) (2006); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because "it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence." Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

         Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla and [it] must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401). If this Court finds that the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and that his decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's determination may not be capriciously overturned.

         III. ANALYSIS

         On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to properly analyze the medical opinion evidence in the record, and he relied upon unsupported testimony from a vocational expert in reaching his conclusion that Plaintiff is not disabled. (Doc. No. 11-1). Plaintiff's assignments of error turn on two limitations within the ALJ's RFC determination and supporting discussion: (1) Plaintiff is limited to frequent-not occasional-bilateral handling or fingering, and (2) Plaintiff is limited to a work environment with simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, free of past-paced production requirements, few, if any, work place changes, and no interaction with the public. Id. As Defendant argues in its brief, substantial evidence supports the limitations that the ALJ included in his RFC determination and hypothetical question.

         A. The ALJ's Evaluation of the Medical Opinions of Record Was ...


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