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Bridgers v. Berryhill

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

January 10, 2018

Robert Lee Bridgers, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.



         Plaintiff Robert Lee Bridgers instituted this action on February 14, 2017, to challenge the denial of his application for social security income. Bridgers claims that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Mason Hogan erred in (1) evaluating the medical opinion evidence, (2) failing to adopt the visual limitations set forth by one of Bridgers's treating providers, and (3) identifying other jobs that Bridgers could perform. Both Bridgers and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 20, 24.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Hogan reached the appropriate decision. ALJ Hogan properly considered the medical opinion evidence, including the visual limitations assessed by Dr. Edwin Swann. Additionally, ALJ Hogan did not err in relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) to identify, at step five, other work suitable for Bridgers. Therefore, the court denies Bridgers's motion, grants Berryhill's motion, and affirms the Commissioner's decision.[2]

         I. Background

         On November 27, 2012, Bridgers protectively filed an application for disability benefits alleging a disability that began on October 19, 2012. After his claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Bridgers appeared before ALJ Hogan for a hearing to determine whether he was entitled to benefits. ALJ Hogan determined Bridgers was not entitled to benefits because he was not disabled. Tr. at 9-25.

         ALJ Hogan found that Bridgers had several severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the lumbar spine with SI joint dysfunction, myofascial pain syndrome, moderate carpal tunnel syndrome, history of left rotator cuff tear, status post surgical repair, possible osteoarthritis of the knees, glaucoma, and afferent pupillary defect. Tr. at 11. ALJ Hogan found that Bridgers's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 12.

         ALJ Hogan then determined that Bridgers had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a range of light work with additional limitations. Tr. at 13. He can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds but he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. Id. Bridgers can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl and occasionally reach with his dominant upper extremity. Id. He can also frequently handle and finger with the bilateral upper extremities. Id.

         Bridgers must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, poor ventilation and hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. Id. Finally, Bridgers cannot do any work that requires depth perception. Id.

         ALJ Hogan concluded that Bridgers was incapable of performing his past relevant work as an apartment maintenance worker or industrial truck driver. Tr. at 23. But ALJ Hogan determined that, considering Bridgers's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Bridgers was capable of performing. Id. These include: cashier, furniture rental consultant, and parking lot attendant. Tr. at 23-24. Thus, ALJ Hogan found that Bridgers was not disabled. Tr. at 25.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Bridgers commenced this action in February 2017. D.E. 5.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to determining whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The ALJ must consider the factors in order. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         C. Medical Background

         Bridgers has a history of back pain, knee pain, carpal tunnel, and diminished vision. In August 2012, Robert Lawrence, PA, examined Bridgers. Tr. at 283. He refilled prescriptions related to Bridgers's back pain. Id. Four months later, Lawrence provided follow-up care for Bridgers's HIV. Tr. at 277-78. Treatment notes reflect that Bridgers had vision loss in his right eye due to untreated glaucoma. Tr. at 278-79.

         Around this same time, Bridgers sought treatment with Dr. Holly Warren for his chronic back pain. Tr. at 365. She prescribed medication and recommended he pursue care with a pain management clinic. Id. The following month, Dr. Mackenzie Smith saw Bridgers for his back pain. Tr. at 368-70. She, too, prescribed medication and suggested he pursue pain management treatment. Id.

         In January 2013, Dr. Smith issued a Medical Source Statement opining that Bridgers's symptoms were severe enough to interfere with the attention and concentration required to perform simple tasks. Tr. at 328-29. Dr. Smith also assessed the following limitations: Bridgers could sit for ten minutes at a time for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; he could stand or walk for ten minutes at a time for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; he is unable to walk a city block without rest without experiencing pain; he would require unscheduled breaks every 15-30 minutes; he could occasionally lift or carry up to ten pounds and could not lift or carry more than 20 pounds; and he would be absent from work four or more times per month due to his impairments. Id.

         Later that month, Dr. Yen Nguyen examined Bridgers's vision due to his complaints of itchiness, dryness, and excessive watering in the left eye. Tr. at 349-50. Dr. Nguyen assessed a pupillary defect in the right eye and glaucoma in the left eye, and prescribed eye drops for both conditions. Id. At a follow-up visit the following month, Dr. Nguyen assessed the same conditions and treatment. Tr. at 354-55. By March, Dr. Nguyen referred Bridgers to a specialist after noticing a decline in his vision. Tr. at 358.

         From March through May, Bridgers sought follow-up care from Dr. Smith's office for his back pain. Tr. at 372-76. Providers prescribed medications and administered injections. Id. A May 2013 examination found an abnormal gait and low back tenderness. Tr. at 377.

         A June 2013 MRI of Bridgers's lumbar spine showed moderate lumbar spondylosis from L3-L4 through L5-S1 with narrowing of the central canal and subarticular recess, and disc material contacting the nerve roots at L3 and L4. Tr. at 395-96. It also showed severe right facet arthropathy and moderate left facet arthropathy at L5-S1 with a diffuse bulge causing mild central canal and neural foraminal narrowing. Id. X-rays of the lumbar spine revealed moderate multilevel degenerative changes of the lumbar spine. Tr. at 399.

         Dr. E.C. Land performed a consultative examination later that month. Tr. at 391-93. His examination noted a dense cataract in the right eye and the formation of one in the left eye. Tr. at 392. Bridgers also displayed a decreased range of motion in the cervical spine with tenderness over his lumbar region and a limited ability to bend and squat. Id. His gait was stiff but he was able to ambulate at times without a cane. Id. Dr. Land assessed low back pain secondary to degenerative arthritis and glaucoma, with loss of vision in the right eye. Tr. at 393. He opined that Bridgers would have mild limitations in squatting, lifting, and bending, as well as mild restrictions in the repetitive use of his left shoulder due to a prior surgery. Id.

         Three months later, Bridgers saw Dr. William Doss[3] for his back pain. Tr. at 401. Dr. Doss's examination found tenderness at the left SI joint and positive Gaenslen, FABER, and Gillett tests on the left side. Tr. at 403. Dr. Doss prescribed medication and referred Bridgers for an SI joint injection and physical therapy. Id.

         Bridgers began physical therapy later that month. Tr. at 531-35. An examination revealed stiff posture, antalgic gait, tender paraspinal muscles, and painful range of motion. Id. Bridgers ...

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