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Waycaster v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

November 17, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Tika Waycaster (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income Under Title XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for Social Security Income (SSI) on November 1, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of May 2, 2012. (Tr. at 158-163, 174.)[2] Her claim was denied initially (Tr. at 61-74, 93-96), and that determination was upheld on reconsideration (Tr. at 75-92, 101-10). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 111-12.) Plaintiff attended the subsequent hearing on August 12, 2015, along with her attorney, and an impartial vocational expert attended via telephone. (Tr. at 18, 34, 36.)

         The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 29.) On December 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. at 1-6.)


         Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of [the] review of [such an administrative] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). “The courts are not to try the case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal brackets omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. “The issue before [the reviewing court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that in administrative proceedings, “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability.” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). In this context, “disability” means the “‘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.'” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[3]

         “The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)). “Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy.” Id.

         A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is ‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first two steps, and establishes at step three that the impairment “equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the regulations, ” then “the claimant is disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., “[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual function[al] capacity (‘RFC').” Id. at 179.[4] Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can “perform past relevant work”; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which “requires the Commissioner to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite [the claimant's] impairments.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, the ALJ must decide “whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job.” Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the Government cannot carry its “evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community, ” the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since her alleged onset date. She therefore met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

lupus; fibromyalgia; obesity; lumbar radiculopathy; left foot impairment, status post tarsal tunnel decompression and partial plantar faciectomy; knee degenerative joint disease, status post right knee arthroscopic lateral release and patellar debridement for patellofemoral arthritis; restricted visual fields; mood disorder; and anxiety disorder.

         (Tr. at 20.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 20-22.) As part of the determination at step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had mild restrictions in activities of daily living, moderate difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace. The ALJ then assessed Plaintiff's RFC and determined that Plaintiff could perform light work but with a sit/stand option at thirty minute intervals; no concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights; unskilled work with no more than occasional public contact in a stable work environment; and infrequent and no commercial driving. (Tr. at 22.) The ALJ then determined at step five that, given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, she could perform other jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. at 27.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 28.)

         Plaintiff now challenges the ALJ's RFC assessment, contending that the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion of Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Barbara Lowry. (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #13] at 2-8.) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to Dr. Lowry's opinion and, alternatively, erred by giving more weight to the opinions of State agency consultants than to the opinion of Dr. Lowry. After a thorough review of the record, the Court finds that neither contention merits remand.

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred in failing to give controlling weight to Dr. Lowry's July 1, 2013 Medical Source Statement. In a recent decision, the Fourth Circuit reiterated that for claims, like Plaintiff's, that are filed before March 24, 2017, the ALJ evaluates medical opinion evidence in accordance with 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c) and 416.927(c) and the “treating physician rule” embodied within the regulations. Brown v. Comm'r Soc. Sec., 873 F.3d 251, 255 (4th Cir. 2017). Under the regulations, “medical opinions” are “statements from acceptable medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of your impairment(s), including your symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what you can still do despite impairment(s), and your physical or mental restrictions.” Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(a)(1). While the regulations mandate that the ALJ evaluate each medical opinion presented to him, generally “more weight is given to the medical opinion of a source who has examined you than to the medical opinion of a medical source who has not examined you.” Brown, 873 F.3d at 255 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(1)); see also 20 C.F.R. ...

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