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Tomlinson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

December 12, 2017

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



         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-11, -16] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Deborah Oglesby Tomlinson ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is recommended that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.


         Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on March 13, 2013, alleging disability beginning August 12, 2010. (R. 149-52). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 64-92). A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on September 9, 2015, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, a vocational expert ("VE"), and a witness for Claimant appeared and testified. (R. 30-63). On October 20, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 8-29). On December 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-5). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.


         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffinan v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "The findings of the Commissioner ... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . .7' 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "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 [Commissioner]." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).


         Initially, the disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:

The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform ... past work or (5) any other work.

Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174F.3d473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Id.

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).


         At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date. (R. 13). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine; scoliosis; osteoporosis; osteopenia; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; osteoarthritis; major depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder. (R. 13- 14). At step three, the ALJ concluded Claimant's impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 14-16). Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding that Claimant had the ability to perform medium work[1] with the following restrictions:

frequently climb ramps or stairs; occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and frequently stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant can frequently handle objects and finger bilaterally. She can have occasional exposure to unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, or moving mechanical parts. The claimant's work is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks but not at a production-rate pace and simple, work-related decisions. She can have occasional interaction with the public, co-workers, and supervisors. She would be off task no more than 10 percent of the time in an eight-hour workday, in addition to normal breaks (with normal breaks defined as a 15-minute morning and afternoon break and a 30-minute lunch break).

(R. 16-22). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations were not entirely credible. (R. 18). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. (R. 22). At step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Claimant can perform. (R. 22-23).

         Claimant alleges the ALJ erred by (1) finding Claimant capable of performing a reduced range of medium work, resulting in a misapplication of the Medical Vocational Guidelines (the "Grids"), (2) failing to appropriately weigh the opinion evidence, and (3) failing to find Claimant's ...

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