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Faison v. Berryhill

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

January 10, 2018

Jacqueline Dawanda Faison, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Jacqueline Dawanda Faison instituted this action on November 21, 2016, to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Faison claims that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Gary Brockington erred in (1) determining that she had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of sedentary work and (2) evaluating the medical opinion evidence. Both Faison 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. 16, 18.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Brockington reached the appropriate decision. The undersigned finds that substantial evidence supports ALJ Brockington's conclusion that Faison has the RFC to perform a reduced range of sedentary work. Additionally, Faison has failed to establish error in ALJ Brockington's evaluation of the medical opinion evidence. Therefore, the undersigned magistrate judge recommends that the court deny Faison's motion, grant Berryhill's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's decision.[2]

         I. Background

         On March 14, 2013, Faison filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging a disability that began on March 7, 2013. After her claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Faison appeared before ALJ Brockington for a hearing to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. ALJ Brockington determined Faison was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 13-25.

         ALJ Brockington found that Faison had the following severe impairments: degenerative joint disease of the knees, osteoarthritis of the spine, asthma/chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”)/emphysematous bronchitis, congestive heart failure, carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”), hypertension, and obesity. Tr. at 15. ALJ Brockington found that Faison's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 16. ALJ Brockington then determined that Faison had the RFC to perform sedentary work, with additional limitations. Tr. at 19. Faison can occasionally climb ramps or stairs but she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Id. She can occasionally balance and stoop but she can never kneel, crouch, or crawl. Id. Faison may frequently reach overhead, handle objects, and finger bilaterally. Id. She may not have exposure to extreme cold, extreme heat, or concentrated levels of pulmonary irritants such as dust, odors, fumes, and gases and to poorly ventilated areas. Id. She must also have no exposure to toxic or caustic chemicals, unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, or moving mechanical parts. Id.

         Faison is limited to jobs she can perform while using a cane, which is required at all times when she is walking. Id. Her contralateral upper extremity could be used to lift and carry up to the exertional limits for sedentary work. Id. Finally, she would be off-task up to 15% of the time in an eight-hour workday, in addition to normal breaks (defined as a 10-15 minute morning break and afternoon break and a 30-60 minute lunch break). Id.

         ALJ Brockington concluded that Faison had no past relevant work but that, considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Faison was capable of performing. Tr. at 24-25. These include: order clerk and table attendant. Tr. at 24. Thus, ALJ Brockington found that Faison was not disabled. Tr. at 25.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Faison commenced this action in November 2016. D.E. 6.

         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 the determination of 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)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. 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 analysis requires the ALJ to consider the following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if the claimant is currently 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[3]

         In March 2013, Faison sought treatment at the Emergency Department at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center for dyspnea related to asthma. Tr. at 338-59. She reported that she had run out of her asthma medication. Tr. at 344-45. Chest x-rays were normal, she received Albuterol, and she was discharged that day. Tr. at 346.

         Three months later, she was hospitalized for approximately 11 days for respiratory failure, multifactorial dyspnea related to congestive heart failure, chest pain, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, asthma, and morbid obesity. Tr. at 367-403. An ECG revealed increased left ventricular wall thickness and concentric left ventricular hypertrophy with an ejection fraction of 65%. Id. A cardiac catheterization showed no active disease, and a pulmonologist attributed her shortness of breath to multiple factors. Tr. at 368.

         Faison received treatment the following month at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center for congestive heart failure. Tr. at 408-16, 421-31. She reported doing well since her discharge and was not using oxygen on that day. Tr. at 437. She also reported an occasional sensation of coughing and post-nasal drip. Id. She had a normal respiratory exam, normal gait, and normal mobility. Tr. at 440. Dr. ...

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