United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Northern Division
MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION
KIMBERLY A. SWANK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
OF THE CASE
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).
Standard of Review
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).
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).
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.)
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.)
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,
(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.)
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