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Tatum v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 2, 2018

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


          Joe L. Webster Judge.

         Plaintiff, William Bryson Tatum, Sr., seeks review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for disability insurance benefits ("DIB"). The Court has before it the certified administrative record[1] and cross-motions for judgment.


         Plaintiff filed an application for DIB on August 1, 2013 alleging a disability onset date of July 27, 2012. (Tr. 85, 104, 171-72.) The applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Id. at 86-103.) A hearing was then held before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") at which Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert ('WE") were present. (Id. at 38-84.) On April 28, 2016, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Id. at 19-31.) On April 13, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review. (Id. at 1-6.)


         The scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is specific and narrow. Smith v. Schweitzer, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Or. 1986). Review is limited to determining if there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). "[I]n reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court] do[es] not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The issue before the Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled but whether the Commissioner's finding that he is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Id.


         The ALJ followed the well-established sequential analysis to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520. See Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999).[2] Here, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of July 27, 2012. (Tr. 21.) The ALJ next found that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: "Lumbar disc degenerative and stenosis; status-post cervical fusion." (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one listed in Appendix 1. (Id. at 22.)

         Prior to step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiffs residual functional capacity ("RFC"). (Id. at 22-29.) Based on the evidence as a whole, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform a limited range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b). (Id. at 22.) Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the RFC to:

lift, carry, push and/or pull up to twenty pounds occasionally and up to ten pounds frequently, and can sit for up to six hours and stand and/or walk for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. He is limited to frequently operating foot controls with his bilateral lower extremities, and occasionally climbing ramps and stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling, and can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can frequently handle and finger bilaterally, and can have no exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts.

(Id.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 29-30.) Finally, at step five, the ALJ found there were other jobs that existed in significant No. in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform such as cashier II, mail sorter, and marker. (Id. at 30-31.) Consequently, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged onset date through the decision date. (Id. at 31.)


         Plaintiff raises several issues in his brief. (Docket Entry 10.) First, Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in weighing the opinion evidence. (Id. at 6-13.) Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in assessing Plaintiffs subjective statements about his symptoms. (Id. at 13-17.) Third Plaintiff claims that substantial evidence does not support the RFC. (Id. at 13-14.) For the following reasons, these objections lack merit.

         A. The ALJ Properly Weighed the Opinion Evidence.

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ erred in giving too little weight to Plaintiffs treating physician Dr. Kwadwo Gyarteng-Dakwa and consultative examiner Dr. Michael Bunch's opinions. (Id. at 6-13.) Plaintiffs argument requires the Court to consider whether the ALJ evaluated Dr. Gyarteng-Dakwa's opinion in accordance with the treating physician rule and Dr. Bunch's opinion in accordance with the regulations regarding non-treating medical sources. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2).[3]

         The treating source rule requires an ALJ to give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment. Id. The rule also recognizes, however, that not all treating sources or treating source opinions merit the same deference. Id. The nature and extent of each treatment relationship appreciably tempers the weight an ALJ affords an opinion. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)(H). Moreover, as subsections (2) through (4) of the rule describe in detail, a treating source's opinion, like all medical opinions including those by nontreating sources, deserves deference only if well supported by medical signs and laboratory findings and consistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2)-(4).[4] "[I]f a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight." Craig, 76 F.3d at 590. When declining to accord a treating source controlling weight, an ALJ must articulate "good reasons" for doing so. C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c).

         In the matter before us, pain specialist Dr. Gyarteng-Dakwa treated Plaintiff monthly for some period of time prior to and during the relevant period.[5] (Tr. 24, 253.) During that time, he completed two medical source statements ("MSS"). (Tr. 28, 253, 743-46, 880.) The first, an October 2013 letter, "assessed disabling limitations, including that the claimant could lift no more than five pounds and sit and stand and/or walk for no more than one hour each." (Id. at 28, 253, 880.) The ALJ considered Dr. Gyarteng-Dakwa's letter, but concluded that it was "notably incomplete and lacking in relevant details, including the claimant's name and dates of treatment" and was "not supported by any explanation or clinical findings." (Id.) Dr. Gyarteng-Dakwa's letter amply supports this conclusion. The ALJ therefore properly gave the October 2013 letter little weight. See Coleman v. Colvin, No. 1:15CV751, 2016 WL 4223583, at *6 (M.D. N.C. Aug. 9, 2016), (The ALJ properly assigned no weight to nurse practitioner's opinions where she provided "little-to-no explanation of the evidence used to form her opinions, which [we]re set forth either in short and conclusory letters or in a check box form, and the record lack[ed] objective medical evidence in support of her conclusory assertions."), report and recommendation adopted, No. 1:15CV751, 2016 WL 5372817 (M.D. N.C. Sept. 26, 2016).

         In his second, May 2014 MSS, Dr. Gyarteng-Dakwa opined Plaintiff could sit and stand and/or walk less than two hours each in an eight-hour workday; could frequently or occasionally lift less than ten pounds; needed the freedom to alternate among sitting, standing, and/or walking at will; would need to walk around or stretch for more than five minutes when transitioning from sitting to standing; could "rarely" use his hands, fingers, and arms to grasp or turn objects, perform fine manipulations, or reach; would have symptoms or side effects from medication that would frequently preclude the attention and concentration needed to perform even simple work tasks; would "very frequently" need to take unscheduled breaks during an eight-hour workday due to "muscle spasms"; and would likely be absent more than four days per month due to his symptoms, treatment, and impairments. (Id. at 28-29, 733-46.)

         The ALJ gave good reasons for declining to accord Dr. Gyarteng-Dakwa's May 2014 opinion controlling or more than partial weight. First, the ALJ noted that Dr. Gyarteng-Dakwa's own diagnoses, treatment notes, and course of treatment failed to support the extreme ...

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