United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
ANGIE L. ROBERTS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on
the pleadings. A hearing was held on these matters before the
undersigned on August 30, 2017, at Raleigh, North Carolina.
For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the
Commissioner is affirmed.
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the
Commissioner denying her claim for supplemental security
income (SSI) pursuant to Title XVI of the Social Security
Act. Plaintiff protectively applied for SSI on October 30,
2012, alleging disability since December 1, 2008. After
initial denials, a hearing was held before an Administrative
Law Judge (ALJ) who issued an unfavorable ruling. The
decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs
request for review. Plaintiff, after receiving an extension
of time, then timely sought review of the Commissioner's
decision in this Court.
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and
1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a
whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
Commissioner employed the correct legal standard.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650,
653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and
individual is considered disabled if he is unable "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
[twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The
Act further provides that an individual "shall be
determined to be under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he
is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential
evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four,
but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five.
See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of
the process the inquiry ceases. See 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
one, if the Social Security Administration determines that
the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful
activity, the claim is denied. If not, then step two asks
whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination
of impairments. If the claimant has a severe impairment, it
is compared at step three to those in the Listing of
Impairments ("Listing") in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404,
Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment meets or
medically equals a Listing, disability is conclusively
presumed. If not, at step four, the claimant's residual
functional capacity (RFC) is assessed to determine if the
claimant can perform his past relevant work. If so, the claim
is denied. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work,
then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to
show that the claimant, based on his age, education, work
experience, and RFC, can perform other substantial gainful
work. If the claimant cannot perform other work, then he is
found to be disabled. See 20 C.F.R. §
one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her application date.
Plaintiffs hypothyroidism, obesity, fibromyalgia,
hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, degenerative disc
disease, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, and
learning disorder were considered severe impairments at step
two but were not found alone or in combination to meet or
equal a Listing at step three. The ALJ concluded that
plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with limitations.
The ALJ found that plaintiff had no past relevant work, and
that, considering her age, education, work experience, and
RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national
economy which plaintiff could perform. Those jobs included
mail clerk, laundry classifier, and remnant sorter.
contends that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate the
opinions of two examining state agency medical consultants,
Dr. Levitt and Ms. Masour, and failed to account for
plaintiffs moderate limitation in maintaining concentration,
persistence, and pace in the RFC finding. The Court addresses
each assignment of error in turn.
agency examiner Dr. Levitt, a psychiatrist, evaluated
plaintiff on January 22, 2013. Tr. 374-77. Dr. Levitt opined
that plaintiff would not be able to retain and follow
instructions on a long-term basis and that she would be
unable to tolerate the stress and pressure associated with
day-to-day work activity at that time. Dr. Levitt also found
plaintiff to be a somewhat unreliable historian and found her
to be unsure and vague in her answers to questions. The ALJ
afforded the opinion of Dr. Levitt little weight, finding
that it was based on a one-time exam and not consistent with
the evidence in the record, in particular the records from
Lincoln Community Health Center, at which plaintiff had
sought medical treatment over time. Tr. 32. Ms. Mansour, a
licensed psychological associate, conducted an assessment of
plaintiff on May 17, 2010. Ms. Mansour found that plaintiff
was able to perform a simple repetitive task, but worked at a
slow pace which Ms. Mansour opined may cause issues in a
competitive work environment. Tr. 318. The ALJ afforded Ms.
Mansour's opinion moderate weight, agreeing that
plaintiff could perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks.
evidence supports the ALJ's treatment of the opinions of
Dr. Levitt and Ms. Mansour. As the ALJ recognized, Dr.
Levitt's opinion regarding plaintiffs abilities was based
at least in part on his findings that, at the time of the
evaluation, plaintiff was undergoing situational stress in
preparation for separation from her abusive husband. Contrary
to Dr. Levitt's opinion that plaintiff could not retain
or follow instructions, plaintiff reported that she had
studied for an associate's degree in early childhood
education and was four courses short of finishing her degree.
The ALJ agreed with Ms. Mansour that plaintiff should be
limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks; although Ms.
Mansour additionally noted plaintiffs slow pace at the time
of the evaluation, plaintiff was found by Ms. Mansour to have
an average full-scale intelligence and Dr. Karen Beasley, a
psychiatrist who performed an evaluation of plaintiff in
February 2009, found that plaintiff was able to sustain
attention to perform simple, repetitive tasks. Tr. 295.
Accordingly, the Court finds there to be sufficient evidence
that a reasonable mind would accept as true to support the
ALJ's RFC assessment is further supported by substantial
evidence. An ALJ makes an RFC assessment based on all of the
relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a)(3). As the ALJ notes, the treatment providers at
Lincoln Community Health Center had routinely described
plaintiff as having average intelligence, and, affording
moderate weight to two non-examining state agency physicians,
the ALJ found that plaintiff had moderate restrictions in
concentration, persistence, or pace; moderate limitations in
social functioning; and required low social demands. The
ALJ's RFC limited plaintiff to simple, routine,
repetitive tasks and jobs without complex decision making,
constant change, or dealing with crisis situations. Although
plaintiff relies on the holding in Mascio v. Colvin,780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015), where the Fourth Circuit
joined with other circuits in finding that a restriction to
simple, routine tasks or unskilled work does not account for
a plaintiffs limitations in concentration, persistence, and
pace, here the ALJ did not only limited plaintiff to simple,
routine, repetitive tasks. Rather, the ALJ addressed