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Robinson v. Berryhill

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

January 2, 2019

Linwood Jerry Robinson, Jr. Plaintiff,
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Linwood Jerry Robinson instituted this action in June 2018 to challenge the denial of his application for social security income. Robinson claims that Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Ronald Sweeda erred in considering the opinion of his treating medical provider and then in determining his residual functional capacity (“RFC”). He also contends that ALJ Sweeda erred in concluding that there was other work Robinson could perform. Both Robinson and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 33, 35.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Sweeda reached the appropriate determination. Substantial evidence supports his consideration of the medical evidence and his RFC determination. And there was no error in his step five analysis because his questions to the Vocational Expert (“VE”) set forth all of Robinson's limitations. Therefore, the undersigned magistrate judge recommends that the court deny Robinson's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's decision.[1]

         I. Background

         In September 2014, Robinson protectively filed applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income. In both applications, Robinson alleged a disability that began in July 2013. After his claims were denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Robinson appeared before ALJ Sweeda for a hearing to determine whether he was entitled to benefits. ALJ Sweeda determined Robinson was not entitled to benefits because he was not disabled. Tr. at 15- 26.

         ALJ Sweeda found that Robinson had many severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, right hip degenerative joint disease, and bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Tr. at 17. ALJ Sweeda found that Robinson's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 19.

         ALJ Sweeda then determined that Robinson had the residual functional capacity to perform a range of light work with limitations. Tr. at 20. Robinson can occasionally climb ladders and scaffolds and occasionally crouch. Id. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs and frequently balance, stoop, kneel, and crawl. Id. Robinson can frequently handle and finger bilaterally. Id. And Robinson is capable of concentrating sufficiently in two-hour increments to perform simple, repetitive tasks. Id.

         ALJ Sweeda concluded that Robinson could not perform his past relevant work as a cook or small business owner. Tr. at 24. But ALJ Sweeda determined that, considering his age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy that Robinson could perform. Tr. at 24-25. These include: shipping/receiving weigher, information clerk, and storage facility clerk. Tr. at 25. Thus, ALJ Sweeda found that Robinson was not disabled. Tr. at 25-26.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Robinson started this action in June 2018. D.E. 5.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to determining whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The ALJ must consider the factors in order. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         C. Medical Background

         Robinson has a history of back, hip, and hand pain. Physician assistant Tiffany Lewis at Oceanside Family Practice began treating Robinson in July 2014. Tr. at 376-79. Robinson related his history of anxiety and low back pain that radiated into his right leg. Tr. at 376. Lewis prescribed medication. Id.

         Two months later, Robinson saw Dr. Eric Lescault, an orthopedist, for his right hip pain. Tr. at 394-96. After reviewing x-rays, Dr. Lescault assessed possible femoral acetabular impingement with osteoarthritis. Tr. at 395.

         Later that month, Robinson began treatment with Dr. Harrison Frank, a pain management specialist at Carolina Comprehensive Health. Tr. at 495-97. Dr. Frank noted that Robinson's medical history included chronic back pain, lower right extremity neuropathy, anxiety, and migraine headaches. Tr. at 495. Robinson reported that pain medication and physical therapy had failed to alleviate his pain symptoms. Tr. at 496. An examination revealed tenderness to palpitation, painful range of motion, and a positive figure four test. Id. Dr. Frank assessed sacroiliitis, lumbago, trochanteric bursitis, and lower right leg neuropathy. Id. He prescribed hydrocodone. Id.

         Dr. Frank noted similar complaints and examination findings at Robinson's next visit. Tr. at 492. Robinson reported continuing back and hip pain. Id. Dr. Frank observed tenderness to palpitation, pain with range of motion, and a positive figure four test. Id. Dr. Frank also found tenderness in Robinson's left knee, which he assessed as arthritis. Tr. at 492-93.

         In November 2014, Robinson returned for a follow-up with Lewis for his continuing knee pain as well as numbness in both hands that radiated into his arms. Tr. at 423. An examination showed a positive Phalen's test on the right and a positive Tinel's test on the left. Id. Lewis referred Robinson to an orthopedist. Id.

         Robinson returned to Dr. Frank later that month reporting constant pain and difficulty standing. Tr. at 488. Dr. Frank changed Robinson's medication. Tr. at 489.

         The next month, Dr. Ayman Gebrail and David Richardson, a nurse practitioner, conducted a consultative examination. Tr. at 444-47. An examination showed tenderness, decreased range of motion, positive Phalen's and Tinel's tests, and decreased strength. Tr. at 446. These examiners opined that Robinson may have trouble with heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, and postural movements. Tr. at 447.

         Upon a return visit to Dr. Frank two weeks later, Robinson claimed that his continuing pain had been disrupting his sleep. Tr. at 484. Dr. Frank prescribed a new medication. Tr. at 485. But the next month, Robinson reported continued pain made worse by activity. Tr. at 480. Dr. Frank noted tenderness to palpitation, painful range of motion, and decreased strength. Id. He changed Robinson's medication, prescribing morphine. Id. In February 2015, Robinson reported that this medication resulted in abdominal upset, and Dr. Frank prescribed Hysingla. Tr. at. 476.

         One month later, Dr. Reuben Silver, Ph.D., performed a consultative psychological evaluation. Tr. at 451-55. Robinson reported feeling angry, stressed, and anxious. Tr. at 452. He stated he was not receiving mental health treatment but that he took Klonopin for his symptoms. Id. Dr. Silver diagnosed Robinson with a panic disorder. Tr. at 454.

         Robinson saw Dr. Frank later that month. Tr. at 472. He reported that the Hysingla was the best medication he had used to treat his pain, although he continued to experience pain in his back, hip, knee, and wrists. Id. Robinson also stated that his pain affected his sleep and limited his mobility and activities. Id. Dr. Frank's ...

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