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Bailey v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina

January 10, 2018

JIMMIE R. BAILEY, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          JAMES E. GATES, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         In this action, plaintiff Jimmie R. Bailey, Jr. ("plaintiff or, in context, "claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying his application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") on the grounds that he is not disabled. The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 11, 15. Both filed memoranda in support of their respective motions. D.E. 12, 16. The motions were referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). See 25 Sept. 2017 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that the Commissioner's motion be allowed, plaintiffs motion be denied, and the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         I. CASE HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on 2 June 2015, alleging a disability onset date of 9 March 2015. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 14. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for a hearing was timely filed. Tr. 14. On 30 August 2016, a video hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") at which plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 33-75. On 26 October 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs application. Tr. 14-28.

         Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 10. On 2 February 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. Tr. 1. At that time, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 404.981.[1] Plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review of the ALJ's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Compl. (D.E. 1).

         II. STANDARDS FOR DISABILITY

         The Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). "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 kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." Id. § 423(d)(3).

         The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:

To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the [Regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the [R]egulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
The first four steps create a series of hurdles for claimants to meet. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has been working (step one) or that the claimant's medical impairments do not meet the severity and duration requirements of the [R]egulations (step two), the process ends with a finding of "not disabled." At step three, the ALJ either finds that the claimant is disabled because her impairments match a listed impairment [i.e., a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 ("the Listings")] or continues the analysis. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at this step. If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity ["RFC"], which is "the most" the claimant "can still do despite" physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. [20 C.F.R.] § 416.945(a)(1).[2] To make this assessment, the ALJ must "consider all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, " including those not labeled severe at step two. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).[3]
The ALJ then moves on to step four, where the ALJ can find the claimant not disabled because she is able to perform her past work. Or, if the exertion required for the claimant's past work exceeds her [RFC], the ALJ goes on to step five.
At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can perform other work that "exists in significant numbers in the national economy, " considering the claimant's [RFC], age, education, and work experience. Id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429J[4]' The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations. If the Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not disabled and denies the application for benefits.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015).

         III. ALJ'S FINDINGS

         Plaintiff was 44 years old on the date he filed his application for DIB and 46 years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 27 ¶ 7; 39. The ALJ found that he had at least a high school education (Tr. 27 ¶ 8) and past relevant work as an industrial truck operator and a material handler (Tr. 26 ¶ 6).

         Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since 9 March 2015, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 16 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol dependence, and mild bilateral knee arthritis and hip arthralgia. Tr. 16 ¶ 3. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the Listings. Tr. 16 ¶ 4. The two listings the ALJ discussed expressly regarding plaintiffs mental impairments were Listings 12.06 and 12.09.

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b)[5]:

The claimant requires a sit-stand option at one-hour intervals throughout the workday. He can occasionally climb ramps or stairs, but can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. He can occasionally operate foot controls bilaterally. The claimant should avoid concentrated exposure to moving machinery, hazardous machinery, and unprotected heights. The claimant can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks with no interaction with the general public and only occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors in a low stress job, defined as having only occasional decision making and occasional changes in the work setting.

Tr. 18-19 ¶ 5.

         Based on her determination of plaintiff s RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. Tr. 26 ¶ 6. At step five, citing the testimony of the vocational expert, the ALJ found that there were jobs in the national economy existing in significant numbers that he could perform, including jobs in the occupations of checker I, folding machine operator, and office helper. Tr. 27 ¶ 10. The ALJ accordingly concluded that plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged disability onset date, 9 March 2015, through the date of the decision, 26 October 2016. Tr. 28 ¶ 11.

         IV. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the appropriate legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Unless the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the wrong legal standard was applied, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla of evidence, but somewhat less than a preponderance. Id.

         The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner as long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992). In addition, the court may not make findings of fact, revisit inconsistent evidence, or make determinations of credibility. See Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979). A Commissioner's decision based on substantial evidence must be affirmed, even if the reviewing court would have reached a different conclusion. Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775.

         Before a court can determine whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must ascertain whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight given to probative evidence. See Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997). "Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator." DeLoatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983); see also Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013).

         DISCUSSION

         I. OVERVIEW OF PLAINTIFF'S CONTENTIONS

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision should be reversed, or in the alternative, the case should be remanded for a new hearing on the grounds that the ALJ erred in: not finding plaintiff to meet or medically equal Listings 12.04 and 12.06; evaluating the medical opinions of treating psychiatrist Kathy Mayo, M.D.; and assessing plaintiffs RFC. The court finds no error.

         II. ALJ'S DETERMINATION ON LISTINGS 12.04 AND 12.06

         A. Applicable Legal Principles

         1. Listings Generally

         The Listings consist of impairments, organized by major body systems, that are deemed sufficiently severe to prevent a person from doing any gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(a). Therefore, if a claimant's impairments meet a listing, that fact alone establishes that the claimant is disabled. Id. § 404.1520(d). An impairment meets a listing if it satisfies all the specified medical criteria. Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990); Soc. Sec. Ruling 83-19, 1983 WL 31248, at *2 (1983). Generally, these criteria are set out in a diagnostic description of the impairment followed by criteria relating to its severity. See, e.g., Listing 12.00A. The burden of demonstrating that an impairment meets a listing rests on the claimant. Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981).

         Even if an impairment does not meet the listing criteria, it can still be deemed to satisfy the listing if the impairment medically equals the criteria. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1525(c)(5). To establish such medical equivalence, a claimant must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for that listing. Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(a) (providing that medical equivalence requires that the impairment "be at least equal in severity and duration to the listed criteria"). "A claimant cannot qualify for benefits under the 'equivalence' step by showing that the overall functional impact of his unlisted impairment or combination of impairments is as severe as that of a listed impairment." Sullivan, 493 U.S. at 531.

         2. Listings 12.04 and 12.06

         Listing 12.04 relates to affective disorders. The diagnostic description in Listing 12.04 reads:

12.04 Affective Disorders: Characterized by a disturbance of mood, accompanied by a full or partial manic or depressive syndrome. Mood refers to a prolonged emotion that colors the whole psychic life; it generally involves either depression or elation.

         Listing 12.04.

         Listing 12.04 is met or equaled by satisfying, in addition to the diagnostic description, the paragraph A and B criteria, or the paragraph C criteria. Listing 12.04. The paragraph A criteria require medically documented persistence of depressive syndrome, manic syndrome, or bipolar syndrome, each meeting various requirements. Listing 12.04A. The paragraph B criteria require that the claimant's mental impairments at issue result in at least two of the following: marked restriction of activities of daily living; marked difficulties in maintaining social functioning; marked difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace; or repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration (defined in Listing 12.00C4 as three episodes within one year or an average of one every four months, each lasting for at least two weeks). Listing 12.04B.

         The paragraph C criteria require a medically documented history of a chronic affective disorder as follows:

C. Medically documented history of a chronic affective disorder of at least 2 years' duration that has caused more than a minimal limitation of ability to do basic work activities, with symptoms or signs currently attenuated by medication or psychosocial support, and one of the following:
1. Repeated episodes of decompensation, each of extended duration; or
2. A residual disease process that has resulted in such marginal adjustment that even a minimal increase in mental demands or change in the environment would be predicted to cause the individual to decompensate; or
3. Current history of 1 or more years' inability to function outside a highly supportive living arrangement, with an indication of ...

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