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Bright v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

June 21, 2017

VERONICA BRIGHT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          JOE L. WEBSTER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Veronica Bright, brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security[1]denying her claims for a Period of Disability ("POD"), Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The Court has before it the certified administrative record and cross-motions for judgment. (Docket Entries 6, 9, 12.) For the reasons discussed below, it is recommended that Plaintiffs Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be granted, and the Commissioner's final decision be affirmed.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed applications for a POD, DIB, and SSI in October of 2012, alleging a disability onset date of June 15, 2009. (Tr. 199-208.)[2] These applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id. at 116-17, 140-41.) Plaintiff then requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 160-61.) Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared at the hearing on June 26, 2014. (Id. at 44-95.) On December 22, 2014, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Id. at 27-38.) Plaintiff thereafter sought review of the ALJ's decision from the Appeals Council. (Id. at 6.) Also, new evidence was submitted on behalf of Plaintiff. (Id. at 10-15, 16-19.) On March 9, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review. (Id. at 1-4.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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); Hays 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. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cit. 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.

         III. THE ALJ'S DISCUSSION

         The ALJ followed the five-step[3] sequential analysis set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled. See Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 15, 2009. (Tr. 29.) The ALJ found the following severe impairments at step two: "severe degenerative disc disease; paroxysmal atrial fibrillation; anxiety; and depression." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have "an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments" found in Appendix 1. (Id. at 30.)

         The ALJ next set forth Plaintiffs Residual Functional Capacity ("RFC") and found that she can perform a reduced range of light work in that she can "lift and/or carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, " and she

can sit, stand, and/or walk up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. She requires a sit/ stand option, with no more than two position changes in any hour while remaining on task; and, she further requires the use of a cane to change positions. She must avoid all exposure to hazards such as dangerous machinery and unprotected heights. [Plaintiff] can occasionally interact with coworkers, supervisors, and the public. She is further limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks (consistent with unskilled work).

(Id. at 32.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. (Id. at 35-36.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found that there were jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Id. at 36-38.) The ALJ thus concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 38.)

         IV. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiff asks this Court to reverse the decision of the Commissioner based on two arguments. First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to account for Plaintiffs limitations in concentration, persistence and pace ("CPP") in setting out her RFC, which resulted in a flawed hypothetical presented to the VE regarding Plaintiffs ability to adjust to other work. (Docket Entry 10 at 12-16.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the Appeals Council erred in not considering two questionnaires that she submitted after the ALJ's decision: a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Assessment ("MRFCA") from Dr. Theresa Yuschok, dated February 2, 2015, and a Residual Functional Capacity Form ("RFCF") from Dr. Sunil Dogra, dated February 9, 2015. (Id. at 16-18.) For the following reasons, these arguments fail.

         1. The ALJ sufficiently accounted for Plaintiffs moderate difficulties in CPP.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ failed to account for Plaintiffs limitations in CPP in setting out her RFC, which resulted in a flawed hypothetical presented to the VE regarding Plaintiffs ability to adjust to other work. (Docket Entry 10 at 12-16.) Plaintiff relies upon the published opinion by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Mascio v. Colvin,780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit determined that remand was appropriate for three distinct reasons, one of which is relevant to the analysis of this case. Specifically, the Fourth Circuit remanded in Mascio because the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the VE, and the corresponding RFC assessment, did not include any mental limitations other ...


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