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Elrod v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 7, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Tamara Lynn Elrod brought this action to obtain review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security[1] 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 judgment.


         Plaintiff 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.)[2] 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.)


         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. 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 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).[3] 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 14-15.)

         At step 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 to

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.


         Plaintiff 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.

         1. The ALJ's RFC determination is Legally Correct and Supported by Substantial Evidence.

         Plaintiff 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 guidelines.

         RFC 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. §§ 404.1520, 416.969.

         An ALJ 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.

         A. The ALJ's physical RFC determination is supported by substantial evidence.

         Here, 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.)

         Second, 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.

         Plaintiffs 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.

         B. The ALJ's mental RFC determination is both legally correct and supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff 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.

         In 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.

         Here, 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 ...

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