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Cole v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

July 27, 2018

WILLIAM D. COLE, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Dennis L. Howell, United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (# 10, 14). Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claim for disability benefits. The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be DENIED and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be GRANTED.

         I. Procedural History

         On April 1, 2010, plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 24.) On the same date, Plaintiff filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income. (T. 24.) In both applications, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of November 30, 2009. (T. 24.) Both applications were denied in a decision dated August 30, 2012. (T. 24.)

         On September 12, 2012, Plaintiff filed a request for review. (T. 24.) On August. 27, 2013, the Appeals Council vacated the August 30, 2012 decision and remanded the case to an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) for further proceedings. (T. 24.) The Appeals Council determined that the limitation of “an option to sit or stand” required clarification, including the frequency and length of time, and the limitation of “minimal exposure to a noisy environment where hearing is a work qualification” was not included in the hypothetical question posed to the vocational expert (“VE”).[1] (T. 24.)

         Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing held on May 14, 2015, in Charlotte, North Carolina.[2] (T. 24.) At the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged onset date of disability to January 1, 2012. (T. 24.) On March 31, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant action. See Compl. (# 1)

         II. Standard for Determining Disability

         An individual is disabled for purposes of receiving disability payments if he or she is unable 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); accord Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). The Commissioner undertakes a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Under the five-step sequential evaluation, the Commissioner must consider each of the following, in order: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful employment; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is sufficiently severe to meet or medically equal the severity of one or more of the listing of impairments contained in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P; (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to perform any other work considering his or her age, education, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.

         At the first two steps of the sequential evaluation, the burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing. Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If a claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at either of these first two steps, the ALJ will determine that the claimant is not disabled and the process comes to an end. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden remains on the claimant at step three to demonstrate that the claimant's impairments satisfy a listed impairment and, thereby, establish disability. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179.

         If the claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at step three, however, then the ALJ must still determine the claimant's RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four in order to determine whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. Id. The burden is on the claimant to demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform past work. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the ALJ determines that a claimant is not cable of performing past work, then the ALJ proceeds to step five. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635.

         At step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform other work. Id. The burden rests with the Commissioner at step five to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into account the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. Typically, the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five through the use of the testimony of a VE, who offers testimony in response to a hypothetical question from the ALJ that incorporates the claimant's limitations. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and deny the application for disability benefits. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In his October 6, 2015, decision, the ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i), 233(d), and 1614(a)(3)(4) of the Social Security Act. (T. 38.) In support of this conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific findings:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through September 30, 2013.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2012, the amended alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, lumbar facet arthropathy, hearing loss, peripheral vascular disease, obesity, [3] and anxiety (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).[4]
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).[5]
(5) The claimant has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b), except for the following limitations: no climbing of ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; a sit/stand option where he can change positions twice an hour; no overhead lifting greater than 10 pounds; frequent bilateral fingering; no noisy environment where hearing is an essential work qualification; allows a cane for ambulation but not as a requirement in the course of work; simple, routine and repetitive tasks; and occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1565 and 416.965).[6]
(7) The claimant was born on September 14, 1971, and he was 38 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1563 and 416.963).
(8) The claimant has a limited education, and he is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1564 and 416.964).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he can perform (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a) 416.969, and 416.969(a)).[7]
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2012, through October 6, 2015 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(g) and 416.920(g)).

(T. 24-38.)

         IV. Standard of Review

         Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g) provides that an individual may file an action in federal court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The scope of judicial review is limited in that the district court “must uphold the factual findings of the Secretary if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); accord Monroe, 826 F.3d at 186. “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (internal quotation marks omitted). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of evidence. Id.

         When a federal district court reviews the Commissioner's final decision, it does not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary.” Id. Accordingly, the issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff is disabled but, rather, whether the Commissioner's decision that he was not disabled is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and whether the ALJ reached his decision based on the correct application of the law. Id.

         V. Discussion

         A. The ALJ's mental RFC finding is supported by substantial evidence.

         Plaintiff initially argues that the ALJ failed to provide a full function-by-function analysis of the nonexertional mental functions associated with his mental impairments. Pl.'s Mem. Supp. (# 11) at 6-12. Plaintiff also argues that the ALJ did not evaluate his mental impairments in a manner consistent with the Fourth Circuit's holding in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 638 (4th Cir. 2015). Id. at 8-9. Finally, relying on SSR 96-8p, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision must be reversed. Id. at 6-7.

         RFC is defined as “the most [a claimant] can do despite [his or her] limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). “The RFC assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis[.]” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996); accord Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636. Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 96-8p provides that the ALJ's RFC “assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g. laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g. daily activities, observations).” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (quoting SSR 96-8p).

         In formulating a RFC, the ALJ is not required to discuss each and every piece of evidence. See Reid v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam)). The ALJ is, however, required to build a logical bridge from the evidence of record to his conclusion. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 189; see also Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000).

         In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace cause work-related limitations with staying on task, and while the ALJ may find that no limitations are required, an ...

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