United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
WEBSTER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Tamara Lynn Elrod brought this action to obtain review of a
final decision of the Commissioner of Social
Security denying her claims for disability
insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental
security income ("SSI"). The Court has before it
the certified administrative record and cross-motions for
filed applications for DIB and SSI on September 6, 2012
alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 2007, later
amended to July 10, 2013. (Tr. 12, 35, 250, 269-70, 218-221,
224-230.) The applications were denied initially and
again upon reconsideration. (Id. at 125-34, 137-45.)
Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law
Judge ("ALJ"). (Id. at 146.) After a
hearing, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled.
(Id. at 12-23.) The Appeals Council denied a request
for review, making the ALJ's determination the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review.
(Id. at 1-4.)
STANDARD FOR REVIEW
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. Cbater, 76 F.3d
585, 589 (4th Cir. 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.
THE ALJ'S DISCUSSION
followed the well-established five-step sequential analysis
to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set
forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. See
Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec: Admin., 174 F.3d
473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The ALJ determined at step one
that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the July 2013 application date. (Tr. 14, 35,
250.) The ALJ next found the following severe impairments at
step two: asthma, fibromyalgia, sleep disorder, sciatica,
shoulder disorder, and affective disorder. (Id. at
three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals one listed in Appendix 1. (Id. at
15-16.) The ALJ next set forth Plaintiffs Residual Functional
Capacity ("RFC") and determined that she could
perform a reduced range of light work in that she is limited
occasionally climb, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl.
She can frequently perform grasping and fine manipulation.
The claimant cannot reach above shoulder level with the left
upper extremity. She must avoid temperature extremes, fumes,
odors, dusts, poor ventilation, and hazards including heights
and moving machinery. The claimant can understand, remember,
and carry out routine instructions. She can tolerate only
occasional interaction with the public.
(Id. at 16.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined
that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work.
(Id. at 21.) Last, at step five, the ALJ determined
that there were jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff
could perform. (Id. at 21-22.) Consequently, the ALJ
concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled.
ISSUES AND ANALYSIS
raises a number of issues in her brief. First, she contends
that the ALJ erred in finding that Plaintiff has the physical
and mental RFC to perform a reduced range of light work.
(Docket Entry 11 at 9-12.) Second, Plaintiff asserts that the
ALJ erred in failing to accord proper weight to the opinion
evidence in the record. (Id. at 12-14.) Third,
Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ failed to find her
osteoarthritis as a severe impairment at Step 2 of the
Sequential Evaluation Process ("SEP").
(Id. at 14-15.) Last, Plaintiff contends that the
ALJ erred by failing to adequately address the impact of
Plaintiff s obesity on her ability to perform work
activities. (Id. at 15-16.) For the following
reasons, these arguments lack merit.
The ALJ's RFC determination is Legally Correct and
Supported by Substantial Evidence.
first contends that the ALJ's RFC determination is not
supported by substantial evidence. (Docket Entry 11 at 9-11.)
As explained below, the Court concludes that the ALJ did not
materially err in the RFC determination, and therefore there
was not a misapplication of the medical-vocational
measures the most a claimant can do despite any physical and
mental limitations. Mines, 453 F.3d at 562; 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.945(a). An ALJ must
determine a claimant's exertional and non-exertional
capacity only after considering all of a claimant's
impairments, as well as any related symptoms, including pain.
See Hines, 453 F.3d at 562-63; 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520, 416.945(b)-(e). The ALJ then must
match the claimant's exertional abilities to an
appropriate level of work (i.e., sedentary, light, medium,
heavy, or very heavy). See 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.967. Any non-exertional limitations may further
restrict a claimant's ability to perform jobs within an
exertional level. See 20 C.F.R. §§
need not discuss every piece of evidence in making an RFC
determination. See Reid v. Commissioner of Soc: Sec,
769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Dyer v.
Barnbart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005)).
However, the ALJ "must build an accurate and logical
bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion."
Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir.
2000). As to the role of the function-by-function analysis,
"[t]he RFC assessment must first identify the
individual's functional limitations or restrictions and
assess his or her work-related abilities on a
function-by-function basis .... Only after that may RFC be
expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work,
sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy." SSR
96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1.
The ALJ's physical RFC determination is supported by
the ALJ's conclusion that Plaintiff could perform a
limited range of light work is supported by substantial
evidence for a number of reasons. First, the medical evidence
supports the ALJ's RFC determination. For example, the
ALJ considers Dr. Kola Adekanmbi's, medical consultative
evaluation report in April 2, 2013 that indicates Plaintiff
had a "normal gait, tenderness of the joints, pain with
range of motion testing, and strong grip strength." (Tr.
18 referencing Tr. 975-78.) The ALJ also notes Dr.
Adekanmbi's stating Plaintiffs ability "to sit,
stand, and move around the examination room without much
difficulty." (Id. at 18 referencing Tr. 975.)
The ALJ gave his opinion "great weight" and
Plaintiff has not challenged the ALJ's conclusion.
(Id. at 19.) Beyond this the ALJ correctly pointed
out that in July 8, 2014, Plaintiffs phalen and tinel signs
were negative and motor strength was 5/5 in all four
extremities. (Id. at 17 referencing 1297.)
the ALJ accurately pointed to Plaintiffs activities of daily
living in support of her physical RFC determination.
(Id. at 15.) For example, the ALJ noted that
Plaintiff reported no problems in her personal care and
further stated helping taking care of her mother's house
and yard. (Id. at 15, 298-305.) In addition,
Plaintiff indicated she prepares meals for her mother and
does laundry. (Id.) The ALJ also accurately noted
that a third party function report from October 9, 2012,
indicated that Plaintiff continued to perform a wide number
of daily activities. (Id. at 282, 289.) The ALJ
found Plaintiffs limitations in this domain "mild"
and the evidence the ALJ relied upon to make this supports
her physical RFC determination findings for a reduced range
of light work. This evidence supports a physical RFC for a
reduced range of light work.
arguments to the contrary are unpersuasive. In support of her
contention that the ALJ erred in her physical RFC assessment,
Plaintiff repeats her own subjective testimony from the
administrative hearing and references a number of medical
records. (Docket Entry 11 at 9-11 referencing Tr. 41, 43,
46-47, 48, 50-51, 813, 972-78, 1099.) Nevertheless, Plaintiff
does not appear to specifically challenge the ALJ's
credibility determination which was inconsistent with the
medical evidence and the activities of daily living discussed
above. Beyond this, the Court agrees with the Commissioner
that Plaintiffs record citations fail to provide any
objective evidence to support Plaintiffs allegations nor do
they refute the ALJ's findings. (See Docket Entry 13 at
10-11.) For the following reasons, the ALJ's physical RFC
determination is supported by substantial evidence.
The ALJ's mental RFC determination is both legally
correct and supported by substantial evidence.
asserts that the ALJ failed to accurately account for her
mental limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace
("CPP"). (Docket Entry 11 at 11-12.) Specifically,
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ did not address her
"ability to stay on task and work at a sufficient pace
to perform substantial gainful employment."
(Id. at 12.) This objection lacks merit as well.
Mascio, the hypothetical the ALJ posed to the VE,
and the corresponding RFC assessment, did not include any
mental limitations other than unskilled work, despite the
fact that, at step three of the sequential evaluation, the
ALJ determined that the claimant had moderate difficulties in
maintaining CPP. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 637-38. The
Fourth Circuit specifically held that it "agree[s] with
other circuits that an ALJ does not account for a
claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and
pace by restricting the hypothetical question to simple,
routine tasks or unskilled work." Id. at 638
(quoting Winschel v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec, 631
F.3d 1176, 1180 (11th Cir. 2011)) (internal quotation marks
omitted). In so holding, the Fourth Circuit emphasized the
distinction between the ability to perform simple tasks and
the ability to stay on task, stating that "[o]nly the
latter limitation would account for a claimant's
limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace."
Id. Although the Fourth Circuit noted that the
ALJ's error might have been cured by an explanation as to
why moderate difficulties in CPP did not translate into a
limitation in the claimant's RFC, it held that absent
such an explanation, remand was necessary. Id.
the ALJ determined at step three that the claimant had
moderate limitations in CPP. (Tr. 15-16.) In support, the
ALJ's assessment in its entirety was:
With regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, the
claimant has moderate difficulties. The claimant reported she
can pay attention for one hour. She indicated she follows
written and spoken instructions very well. However, the
claimant also reported ...