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Brickhouse v. Berryhill

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

January 2, 2019

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. Jody Lee Brickhouse (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of his applications for disability insurance benefits (“DIB”), and supplemental security income (“SSI”). 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 #16] be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be granted [DE #19], and the Commissioner's decision be upheld.


         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on November 11, 2013, with an alleged onset date of September 1, 2012. (R. 20, 237-248.) These applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 153-64, 168-75, 176-85.) A hearing was held on August 23, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) James E. Williams, who issued an unfavorable ruling on September 26, 2016. (R. 20-38.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on July 19, 2017. (R. 1-5.) At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).


         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) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and 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), 416.920(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. “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

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the requirements for insured status under the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016. (R. 23.) 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 September 1, 2012, the alleged onset date. (R. 23.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “diabetes mellitus, adhesive capsulitis of the right shoulder, status post arthroscopic capsular release and debridement of adhesions and subacromial bursectomy and manipulation under anesthesia, hyperlipidemia, essential hypertension, and an affective disorder.” (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's sinusitis and otitis media, visual impairment, and kidney stone to be non-severe impairments. (R. 23-24.) The ALJ also found Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms in his hands attributable to diabetes, and not carpal tunnel syndrome. (R. 24.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff's back pain resolved after a short duration and did not meet the duration requirements of the Act. (Id.)

         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. 24.) The ALJ analyzed Listings 1.02 (major dysfunction of a joint), 4.00H (cardiovascular impairments), 9.00 (endocrine disorders), 12.00 (mental disorders) and 12.04 (depressive, bipolar, and related disorders). (R. 25.)

         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) and 416.967(b), except he is limited to occasional reaching, both overhead and in all other directions, and frequent handling and fingering with the right upper extremity, can tolerate no exposure to weather or extreme heat, and is limited to performing simple, routine tasks.

(R. 27.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms “not consistent with his subjective reports to his treatment providers, the mostly mild findings on examination, and the evidence of the claimant's response to treatment.” (R. 36.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not able to perform his past relevant work as a laborer or electrician helper, customer service worker or counter clerk, pest control technician, sales clerk, delivery truck driver, dispatcher, and warehouse worker. (R. 36.) At step five, the ALJ concluded, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, that there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (R. 37.) Specifically, the ALJ found Plaintiff capable of performing work as a cashier, marker, and photocopy machine operator. (R. 37.)

         IV. Plaintiff's Arguments

         Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred by:

(A) improperly discounting the weight assigned to the opinion of a nurse practitioner (Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. J. Pldgs. [DE #16] at 20- 21);
(B) improperly discounting the weight assigned to Plaintiff's statements regarding the severity of his symptoms and determining Plaintiff's RFC to be light work with specified modifications (id. at 21- 24); and
(C) failing to incorporate all of Plaintiff's alleged physical and mental limitations in the hypothetical questions posed to the Vocational Expert (“VE”) and determining ...

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