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Wright v. Berryhill

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

June 21, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Anthony Lavell Wright (Plaintiff) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #15] be granted, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #21] be denied, and the Commissioner's decision be remanded for further proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability and DIB on February 5, 2015, with an alleged onset date of February 28, 2012. (R. 19, 172-73.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 19, 78, 90, 121.) A hearing was held on August 24, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Joseph Booth III, who issued an unfavorable ruling on November 21, 2016. (R. 19, 33.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on March 17, 2017. (R. 1.) Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (first quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); then quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (citations omitted) (alteration in original). “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 [Commissioner].” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4); Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since February 28, 2012, the alleged onset date. (R. 21.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spines, osteoarthritis of the bilateral knees, migraine headaches, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (R. 22.)

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 22.) The ALJ stated that he considered all listings and placed particular focus on Listing 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine), and Listing 12.06 (anxiety-related disorders). (Id.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except he is limited to frequent overhead reaching with the left and right upper extremities. He is limited to frequent climbing of ramps and stairs. He can have unlimited use of stepladders (defined as no more than a height of four vertical feet), but no climbing of ladders above that height and no climbing ropes or scaffolds of any height. He can frequently balance, occasionally stoop, frequently kneel, frequently crouch, and occasionally crawl. He may have occasional exposure to unprotected heights and frequent exposure to moving mechanical parts, extreme cold, and extreme heat, occasional exposure to vibration, and exposure to only moderate noise levels. He can interact with supervisors and coworkers frequently and can work in close proximity to, but have no greater than occasional interaction with, the public. He is limited to no more than frequent changes to the work setting and the manner and method of performing the assigned work. His time off task can be accommodated by normal breaks.

(R. 24.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms “not entirely consistent” with the evidence in the record. (R. 30.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as an Infantry Weapons Crew Member. (R. 31.) At step five, the ALJ identified Electronics Worker, Plastic Hospital Product Assembler, and Shipping/Receiving Weigher as jobs with sufficient numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. 32.)

         IV. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff raises two arguments on review: the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's RFC is flawed and the ALJ assigned inappropriate weight to the opinions of Plaintiff's treating physicians. (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. J. Pldgs. [DE #16] at 3, 7-14.) These arguments break down into three separate, but still related, arguments: (A) the ALJ assigned improper weight to medical opinions from Plaintiff's primary care doctor and treating rheumatologist, which imposed greater limitations than those imposed by the ALJ and which were consistent with each other and with Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms (id. at 10-11); (B) the ALJ assigned improper weight to Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his degenerative disc disease, duration of migraine headaches, and PTSD symptoms (id. at 9-10); and (C) the ALJ failed to incorporate Plaintiff's medical prescription for an ambulatory assistive device into the RFC (id. at 11-12). The Commissioner has replied to each argument, and contends the ALJ correctly applied the relevant law and regulations, reached factual findings supported by substantial evidence, and adequately explained why he did not assign more weight to the ...

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