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Koonce v. Berryhill

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

May 8, 2018

DANNY R. KOONCE, 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 Danny R. Koonce ("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, 14. Both filed memoranda in support of their respective motions. D.E. 12, 15. 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 2 Nov. 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 26 October 2012, alleging a disability onset date of 5 February 2010. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 10. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for a hearing was timely filed. Tr. 10. On 1 June 2015, 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. 28-67. On 28 January 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff s application. Tr. 10-22.

         Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 6. On 13 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] On 29 March 2017, plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review of the ALJ's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). See Compl. (D.E.I).

         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 [R]egulations' 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. § 4l6.945(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. §§ 4l6.92O(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429.[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 53 years old on the date he filed his application for DIB and 58 years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 19 ¶ 7; 33. The ALJ found that he had at least a high school education (Tr. 20 ¶ 8) and past relevant work as a tractor-trailer truck driver (Tr. 19 ¶ 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 5 February 2010, the alleged disability onset date. Tr. 13 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: lumbar degenerative disc disease, right knee degenerative joint disease, obesity, and chronic kidney disease. Tr. 13 ¶ 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. 13 ¶ 4.

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a reduced range of medium work:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the [RFC] to perform work at the medium exertional level. He can occasionally climb ramps, stairs; can never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; and can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can have occasional exposure to extreme cold, (as defined in the Selected Characteristics of Occupations). He can perform work that does not require the operation of a motor vehicle.

Tr. 15 ¶ 5. The ALJ explains in a footnote:

Work at the medium exertional level is defined as having the capacity to lift, carry, push, or pull 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently; stand or walk 6 hours in an 8 hour workday; and sit 6 hours in an 8 hour workday (20 CFR 404.1567(c)). "Occasional" and "occasionally" mean occurring from very little up to one-third of the time (SSR 83-10).

Tr. 15 n.l ¶ 5; see also Dictionary of Occupational Titles (U.S. Dep't of Labor 4th ed. rev. 1991) ("DOT"), app. C § IV, def. of "M-Medium Work," 1991 WL 688702; 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567 (providing that the terms for exertional level as used in the Regulations have the same meaning as in the DOT).

         Based on his determination of plaintiff s RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work. Tr. 19 ¶ 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 at the medium exertional level, including jobs in the occupations of hand packager, laundry worker, and dining room attendant. Tr. 20 ¶ 10. Noting that a claimant who can perform work at the medium exertional level is deemed able to perform work at the light and sedentary exertional levels, 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), the ALJ found that plaintiff could also perform at the light exertional level jobs in the occupations of cashier II, small part assembler, and inspector/hand packager. Tr. 20 ¶ 10. The ALJ accordingly concluded that plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged disability onset date, 2 February 2010, through the date of the decision, 28 January 2016. Tr. 21 ¶ 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 (4thCir. 1972). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Per ales, 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 modified, or in the alternative, the case should be remanded for a new hearing on the grounds that the ALJ erred in assessing plaintiffs RFC and evaluating the medical opinions of treating physician Karen A. Thomas, M.D. The court finds no error.

         II. ALJ'S RFC DETERMINATION

         As noted, a claimant's RFC is the most a claimant can still do despite his limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). More specifically, "[o]rdinarily, RFC is the individual's maximum remaining ability to do sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis," which "means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule." Soc. Sec. Ruling 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *2 (2 July 1996). The assessment of a claimant's RFC must be based on all the relevant medical and other evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). An ALJ's decision must state the claimant's RFC determination and provide the supporting rationale for it. See Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636.

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in assessing his RFC by ignoring the purported incompatibility of the occasional stooping limitation with medium work; improperly assessing plaintiffs credibility; and not adequately accounting for evidence substantiating plaintiffs allegations of disability. Each of these grounds is examined in turn below.

         A. Stooping Limitation

         Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred by finding him able to perform medium work because the ALJ limited him to occasional stooping and, under Social Security Ruling 83-10, 1983 WL 31251, at *6 (1983), ...


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