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Langevin v. Berryhill

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

January 10, 2018

Patricia Ann Langevin, Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Patricia Ann Langevin instituted this action on June 10, 2016, to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Langevin claims that Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Edward T. Morriss erred in (1) failing to properly consider the side effects of her medications, (2) failing to afford appropriate weight to the opinions of her treating physician, and (3) failing to account for her non-exertional limitations in formulating the residual functional capacity ("RFC") determination. Both Langevin 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. 28, 30.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Morriss erred in his determination. Despite the earlier remand order, the decision fails to account for the side effects from Langevin's medication in the RFC determination. Moreover, his reasons for discounting the treating physician's opinions are not supported by the evidence. Finally, the RFC determination fails to account for Langevin's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace. Accordingly, the undersigned magistrate judge recommends that the court grant Langevin's motion for judgment on the pleadings (D.E. 28), deny Berryhill's motion for judgment on the pleadings (D.E. 30), and remand the action to the Commissioner for an award of benefits.[2], [3]

         I. Background

         On January 22, 2010, Langevin protectively filed applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income. In both applications, Langevin alleged a disability that began on May 15, 2009. After her claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Langevin appeared for a hearing on October 18, 2011, to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. Her claims were denied on October 28, 2011. Tr. at 14-30.

         Langevin subsequently sought review, first with the Appeals Council and thereafter with in this court. In September 2014, this court remanded Langevin's claim to the Commissioner for further consideration. See D.E. 29, Langevin v. Colvin, Case No. 7:13-cv-00065-BO (E.D. N.C. Sept. 4, 2014). Those claims were consolidated with Langevin's then-pending applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income filed in February 2013.

         Upon remand, Langevin appeared before ALJ Morriss for a hearing to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. ALJ Morriss determined she was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 346-365.

         ALJ Morriss found that Langevin had the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder ("PTSD") by history. Tr. at 349. ALJ Morriss found that Langevin's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 350. ALJ Morriss then determined that Langevin had the RFC to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels with additional, nonexertional limitations. Tr. at 352. Langevin is limited to understanding, remembering, and carrying out simple instructions. Id. She is unable to work in a job that requires ongoing public interaction. Id.

         ALJ Morriss concluded that Langevin was unable to perform her past work as an appointment setter, sales clerk, convenience store cashier, or retail cashier. Tr. at 363. ALJ Morriss found, however, that considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Langevin was capable of performing. Tr. at 364. These include: laundry worker, polisher, and hospital cleaner. Id. Thus, ALJ Morriss found that Langevin was not disabled. Tr. at 365.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Langevin commenced this action on June 10, 2016. D.E. 1. 3

         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

         Langevin has a history of bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety, and PTSD stemming back to her childhood. Following a suicide attempt at age 13, she had been able to manage her mental health symptoms. Tr. at 265, 279-80. However, in January 2010, New Hanover Regional Medical Center admitted Langevin to its Psychiatric Unit after she attempted suicide again. Tr. at 261-62. She was discharged after four days. Tr. at 263. Langevin sought mental health treatment at Coastal Horizons, which noted her symptoms included loss of interest in all activities, feelings of worthlessness, indecisiveness, depression, sleep difficulties, fatigue, and irritability. Tr. at 273.

         Dr. Daniel Zinicola of Rocky Point Medical Center has been Langevin's primary care physician for many years. Tr. at 287.[4] His treatment notes reflect that Langevin suffered from bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, headaches, obesity, dizziness, and agoraphobia. Tr. at 286, 322-24. He issued a medical source statement in June 2011 noting Langevin's multiple medications caused side effects that limited her functioning. Tr. at 285-86. He opined that she could not drive or engage in long-term reading and that she was limited to standing ...

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