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Carroll v. Berryhill

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

February 26, 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, the parties having consented to proceed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c). Angela F. Carroll (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for supplemental security income (“SSI”). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. The court heard oral arguments on October 31, 2018. The court has carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #23] is denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #27] is granted, and the Commissioner's decision is upheld.


         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for SSI on April 8, 2013, with an alleged onset date of April 8, 2013. (R. 30, 92, 105.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 116, 117- 20, 124-28.) A hearing was held on October 22, 2015, as well as a supplemental hearing on June 23, 2016, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Edward T. Morriss, who issued an unfavorable ruling on August 15, 2016. (R. 50, 74, 30-44, 297.) The Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review based on the ALJ having assigned great weight to the opinion of a single-decision maker and having failed to evaluate Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome. (R. 211-12.) The Appeals Council issued a decision on October 10, 2017, denying Plaintiff's claim. (R. 1-11.) At that time, the decision of the Appeals Council became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.1479, 416.1481. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405 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. In making this determination, the ALJ must decide “whether claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job.” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981) “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).

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the Commissioner must do so in accordance with the “special technique” described in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(b)- (c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the Commissioner rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s) in the claimant's abilities to understand, remember, or apply information; interact with others; concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and adapt or manage oneself. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(c)(3).[1] The Commissioner is required to incorporate into her written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the “special technique.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.920a(e)(3).

         III. Agency's Findings

         Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act (“the Act”). The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's findings at steps one through five and found Plaintiff “not disabled” under the Act. (R. 4, 8.) At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since April 8, 2013, the alleged onset date. (R. 32.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “depression/PTSD” and “chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” (Id.) The ALJ found Plaintiff's peripheral vascular disease and migraines to be non-severe impairments. (Id.) The Appeals Council also found Plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome to be a non-severe impairment because it did not meet the duration requirements of the Act. (R. 4-5, 212, 554.)

         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, App. 1. (R. 32.) The ALJ analyzed Listings 3.02 (chronic pulmonary insufficiency), 12.04 (affective disorders), and 12.06 (anxiety related disorders). (R. 33.) The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's findings as to Listing 3.02 but noted that the medical criteria for evaluating mental disorders had been revised effective January 17, 2017. (R. 5.) Applying the revised criteria, the Appeals Council determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of the revised Listings 12.04 (depressive, bipolar, and related disorders) or 12.15 (trauma-and stressor-related disorders.) (R. 5.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(c). She should avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases and poor ventilation, and she is limited to understanding, remembering and carrying out simple instructions.

         (R. 6.) In making this assessment, the Appeals Council and the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of Plaintiff's symptoms “not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record.” (R. 6, 37.) At step four, the Appeals Council and the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (R. 8, 43.) 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. 43.) The Appeals Council and the ALJ found that Plaintiff's non-exertional limitations do not significantly erode the occupational base of unskilled work at the medium exertional level and that using 20 C.F.R. § 416.969 and Medical-Vocational Rule 203.28 as a framework would direct a conclusion that Plaintiff is “not disabled.” (R. 8, 43-44.) The ALJ initially assigned great weight to the opinion of single decision-maker William Garrett; however, the Appeals Council assigned the opinion no weight finding that a “single decision maker is not an acceptable medical source under the rules in effect at the time [Plaintiff] filed [her] claim.” (R. 212.)

         IV. ...

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