United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
STACY D. FARIOR, 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, pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. A hearing was held on these motions before
the undersigned on August 31, 2017, in Edenton, North
Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, the matter is
remanded to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings.
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 disability insurance
benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Social
Security Act and supplemental security income
("SSI") under Title VXI of the Social Security Act.
Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on March 14, 2012 and
for SSI on September 19, 2012, alleging disability beginning
September 11, 2012. After initial denial and reconsideration,
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 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 she 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. § l382c(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. § l382c(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, however, 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 her 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
her age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform
other substantial gainful work. If the claimant cannot
perform other work, then she is found to be disabled. See 20
C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff met the insured status
requirements and had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since her alleged onset date. Plaintiffs obesity,
chronic-obstructive-pulmonary disease ("COPD"),
diabetes, learning disorder, and history of coronary-artery
disease were considered severe impairments at step two, but
were not found, alone or in combination, to meet or equal a
Listing at step three.
concluded that plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work
with additional exertional limitations. The ALJ then found
that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work,
but that, considering Plaintiffs age, education, work
experience, RFC, and testimony from the vocational expert
("VE"), there were other jobs that existed in
significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff
could perform. Thus, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was
not disabled within the meaning of the Act.
failed to appropriately evaluate the opinion of Plaintiff s
treating physician, Dr. Singh. According to the regulations,
certain factors are considered to determine the weight given
to a medical opinion, including the "examining
relationship" and "treatment relationship." 20
C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(1)-(2). Opinions from examining and
treating sources are generally given more weight than other
opinions. Id; Brown v. Berryhill, 2017 WL 2574449
(E.D. N.C. 2017). If a treating physician's opinion is
"well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with
the other substantial evidence, " it will be given
controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(1)-(2).
the ALJ, instead of giving more weight to Dr. Singh's
evaluation due to his relationship to Plaintiff, as the
regulations require, gave less weight. The ALJ criticized the
form • of Dr. Singh's evaluation, but did not either
find it to be medically unacceptable or rely on the form in
coming to his conclusion. Instead, the ALJ considered the
form "in conjunction with the treating relationship
between Dr. Singh and the claimant." Tr. 25. The ALJ
concluded that "as a result of such relationship, Dr.
Singh is motivated to complete such forms in a manner most
beneficial to the claimant." Id.
is permitted to disregard the opinion of a treating physician
when there is persuasive contrary evidence. Bishop v.
Comm'r of Soc. Sec,583 Fed.Appx. 65, 67 (4th Cir.
2014) (per curiam); Hunter v. Sullivan,993 F.2d 31,
35 (4th Cir. 1992). An ALJ's assessment of a
physician's implied motivation is not sufficient. In
support of discounting Dr. Singh's opinion on the basis
of bias, the ALJ does not cite to persuasive contrary
evidence. The ALJ only notes that a cardiologist found in
2014 that Plaintiff had no active signs of ischemia, and that
the format of Dr. Singh's evaluation was ...