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Elrod v. Barryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 23, 2018

TAMARA LYNN ELROD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BARRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         This matter is before the Court for review of the Magistrate Judge's Memorandum Opinion and Recommendation ("Recommendation") filed on August 25, 2016, in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). [Doc. #14.] The Magistrate Judge recommends affirming the Commissioner of Social Security's ("Commissioner") decision denying Plaintiff Tamara Lynn Elrod's claims for disability insurance benefits, denying Ms. Elrod's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. #10], and granting Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [Doc. #12]. After the Recommendation was filed, notice was served on the parties pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636. [Doc. #14.] Ms. Elrod timely filed objections [Doc. #16] to the Recommendation obligating this Court to undertake a de novo review of those portions of the Recommendation to which objections were made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b); Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 48 (4th Cir. 1982). After conducting such review, this Court finds that the Magistrate Judge correctly found that substantial evidence supported the Commissioner's decision, and as a result, adopts the Recommendation.

         I.

         Ms. Elrod argues that the Magistrate Judge erred in recommending the adoption of: (1) the weight the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") accorded to Ms. Elrod's prior Medicaid award, (2) the weight the ALJ gave to Dr. Daniel Bradford's consultative opinion, (3) the ALJ's failure to address Ms. Elrod's GAP[2] scores with specificity, (4) the ALJ's determination that Ms. Elrod can perform a range of light work, and (5) the ALJ's failure to account properly for Ms. Elrod's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace ("CPP") in the residual functional capacity ("RFC"). (Pl.'s Objs. to R. & R. "Pl.'s Objs." [Doc. #16].)

         The Court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review the Commissioner's final decision denying benefits. However, the scope of review of such a decision is "extremely limited." Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "[A] reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation omitted).

         "Substantial evidence means 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than preponderance." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence." Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted). "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 [ALJ]." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472.

         A.

         Ms. Elrod first objects to the Magistrate Judge's assessment of the weight the ALJ gave to the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services ("NCDHHS") Medicaid determination that Ms. Elrod was disabled. On October 4, 2013, the NCDHHS found Ms. Elrod was disabled based on her severe impairments of major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. The NCDHHS also found Ms. Elrod suffered from impairments of rheumatoid arthritis and torn rotator cuff, though not severe. (Tr. at 1086-88.) Under 20 C.F.R. § 404.1504, a decision by any governmental or nongovernmental agency about whether or not a claimant is disabled is not binding on the Social Security Administration. But Social Security Ruling 06-03p provides that "evidence of a disability decision by another governmental or nongovernmental agency cannot be ignored and must be considered." Soc. Sec. Ruling 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *6 (Aug. 9, 2006). The ruling explains that "[t]hese decisions, and the evidence used to make these decisions, may provide insight into the individual's mental and physical impairment(s) and show the degree of disability determined by these agencies based on their rules." Id. at *7. In addressing this issue with regard to a prior United States Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA") disability determination, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that an ALJ must give weight and consideration to a prior disability determination. Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 343 (4th Cir. 2012) ("[W]e hold that, in making a disability determination, the SSA must give substantial weight to a VA disability rating.") However, the ALJ has discretion in how much weight to give a prior determination.

[B]ecause the SSA employs its own standards for evaluating a claimant's alleged disability, and because the effective date of coverage for a claimant's disability under the two programs likely will vary, an ALJ may give less weight to a VA disability rating when the record before the ALJ clearly demonstrates that such a deviation is appropriate.

Id. "Subsequent case law within the Fourth Circuit has explicitly extended the holding in Bird to Medicaid decisions." Perry v. Berryhill, No. 2:1 6-CV-00058-D, 2017 WL 3044573, at *4 (E.D. N.C. June 28, 2017).

         Ms. Elrod asserts that the NCDHHS disability determination was based on "rheumatoid arthritis, depression, personality disorder, torn rotator cuff, and bipolar disorder prevent[ing] her from being able to work at any exertional level or perform even unskilled work." (Pl.'s Objs. [Doc. #16] at 3.) However, the record shows that the NCDHHS decision to approve Ms. Elrod for Medicaid was based on the severe mental impairments of major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder and not her physical impairments. (Tr. At 1086-88.) Furthermore, the ALJ did expressly consider the NCDHHS's opinion with regard to Ms. Elrod's mental health issues, (Id. at 20.) The ALJ then explained that she gave the opinion "little weight" because "more recent treatment notes document an improvement in the claimant's mental status with regular treatment and a change to her psychiatric medications." (Id.) The ALJ refers to changes in Ms. Elrod's psychiatric medicine since the NCDHHS's disability determination in October 2013. (Id.) Specifically, with regard to her mental impairments, the ALJ wrote,

In August 2014, the claimant reported doing much better with a change in her medications and she continued to do well throughout the remainder of 2014. The most recent progress notes from January 2015 reflected a happy and tired mood with the claimant visibly more relaxed.

(Id. at 18.) Because, contrary to Ms, Elrod's assertions, the ALJ did explain why she did not give great weight to the NCDHHS's previous determination, this objection is overruled.

         B.

         Ms. Elrod's next objection is that the Magistrate Judge erred in recommending the acceptance of the ALJ's "conclusory analysis" of Dr. Daniel Bradford's consultative opinion. (Pl.'s Objs. at 4.) Ms. Elrod argues that the ALJ's explanation of the weight accorded to Dr. Bradford's opinion does not allow for "meaningful substantial evidence review" as required by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176 (4th Cir. 2016), because the ALJ "provided no explanation of her ...


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