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Prater v. Berryhill

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

June 27, 2017

MICHAEL L. PRATER, Plaintiffs,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Defendant.

          ORDER

          FRANK D. WHITNEY, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Michael Lance Prater's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11), filed March 6, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12), filed May 3, 2017. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for Disability Insurance Benefits.

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED and Defendant's Motion is DENIED. The Court VACATES the decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) and REMANDS the case to the Commissioner for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Michael L. Prater (“Plaintiff”) filed for a period of Disability Benefits on May 3, 2012, under Title II and Title XVIII Part A, initially alleging a disability onset date of May 31, 2011, (later amended to November 24, 2012) due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”), Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (“OCD”), high blood pressure, and sleep problems. (Tr. 245). At the time of the application, Plaintiff was 57 years old. Plaintiff submitted evidence of his disability from Sonora Behavioral Healthcare, Inc.; Asheville Veterans Affairs Medical Center; and Olympus Health North Carolina, LLC.; including records from psychologist Dr. Barry Rand, psychiatrist Dr. Susan Glover, and therapist Dr. E. Lynn Marlow. (Tr. 25-28). These records were reviewed by Social Security Administration's (“SSA”) medical consultants. (Tr. 138-39). Plaintiff's application was initially denied and then again upon his request for reconsideration. (Tr. 138, 143). Plaintiff then filed a written request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge on April 2, 2013, pursuant to 20 C.F.R. 404.929. (Tr. 117).

         Administrative Law Judge Sherman Schwartzberg (“the ALJ”) held a hearing on January 27, 2014. (Tr. 152). Before the ALJ issued his decision, the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) found Plaintiff completely disabled due to service-connected disabilities on February 11, 2014. (Tr. 775). Then, on March 7, 2014, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for disability. (Tr. 129). Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council and the case was remanded to explain, inter alia, why the ALJ assigned “little weight” to the VA's determination and other medical source opinions and to resolve conflicts in the Vocational Expert's testimony. (Tr. 134-36). The ALJ reconsidered the claim and issued a second decision denying Plaintiff's application on September 16, 2015. (Tr. 15-33). The Appeals Council denied further administrative review (Tr. 1), thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. Plaintiff filed timely review to this court pursuant to on March 24, 2016, (Doc. No. 1), and the parties' Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), this court is authorized to review the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security to determine that (1) the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and (2) that the Commissioner applied the correct legal standard. Hays v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The District Court does not review a final decision de novo, Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986), and must uphold the decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) ([T]the findings of the Commissioner … as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.”); Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).

         Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, which comprises more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson 402 U.S. at 401). Under this substantial evidence review, the reviewing court does not re-weigh conflicting evidence, determine credibility, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. The ALJ, not the Court, has the ultimate responsibility for weighing the evidence and resolving conflicts. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         The issue before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was disabled under the Social Security Act from November 24, 2012, to the date of the ALJ's decision. Disability is defined by 42 U.S.C. § 301 as “an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” The SSA requires an ALJ to follow a five-step process to make this determination. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). If the claimant is found to be disabled or not disabled at any step in the process, the inquiry ends and the adjudicator does not need to proceed further in the evaluation process.

         In step 1, an ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaged in a substantial gainful activity. In step 2, the ALJ determines whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable impairment or a combination of impairments. In step 3, an ALJ will find whether the claimant's impairments meets or medically equals one of the “paragraph B or C” listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. If an ALJ determines that the impairments are not so severe, the ALJ will pause to determine the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). An ALJ will then use the RFC finding in step 4 to examine whether the claimant can perform the requirements of his past relevant work or, in step 5, whether the claimant can do any other work, considering the claimants RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v).

         In this case, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled because his impairments did not meet or equal the “paragraph B or C” criteria in step 3 and that he could perform the requirements of past relevant work and other jobs available in the national economy in steps 4 and 5. (Tr. 31-33). On appeal, Plaintiff alleges the ALJ committed four errors in the evaluation of Plaintiff's RFC and a further errors in the ALJ's application of the RFC in steps 4 and 5. This Court agrees with Plaintiff that the ALJ committed error warranting remand because the failed to explain why Plaintiff's moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and pace in step 3 was not incorporated into the ALJ's finding of Plaintiff's RFC. This Court finds Plaintiff's three additional assignments of error in the RFC analysis unavailing: that the ALJ improperly assigned weight to Plaintiff's treating mental health examiners' opinions, the VA determination, and some of Plaintiff's Global Assessment of Functioning scores. Finally, Plaintiff also alleges that the ALJ failed to resolve conflicts between the Vocational Expert's ...


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