United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division
ANGELA F. CARROLL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
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, 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.
OF THE CASE
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).
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. 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.
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). The Commissioner
is required to incorporate into her written decision
pertinent findings and conclusions based on the
“special technique.” 20 C.F.R. §
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.)
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.)
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.
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.)