United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
TERRENCE W. BOYLE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings. [DE 13, 18]. The motions have
been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. A hearing on
this matter was held in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on
March 5, 2019. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs
motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 13] is GRANTED and
defendant's motion [DE 18] is DENIED.
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the
Commissioner denying his claim for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the
Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed his application on
August 26, 2013, alleging disability dating back to September
20, 2012. Plaintiffs application was denied both initially
and upon reconsideration. A hearing was held before an
administrative law judge (ALJ) on October 28, 2015. The ALJ
issued a decision in January 2016, finding that plaintiff was
not disabled from September 20, 2012 through October 27,
2015, but that he was disabled from October 28, 2015 onward.
In September 2017, the Appeals Council issued an amended
determination, finding that plaintiff s onset date was
January 8, 2016, rather than October 28, 2015, but affirmed
the remainder of the ALJ's findings.
October 2017, plaintiff filed the complaint at issue, seeking
judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). [DE 1].
In July 2018, plaintiff moved for judgment on the pleadings.
[DE 13]. Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings in
October 2018. [DE 18]. A hearing was held before the
undersigned in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on March 5,
2019. [DE 21].
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and
1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a
whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
Commissioner employed the correct legal standard.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, A2>A F.3d
650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and
individual is considered disabled if he is unable "to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or mental impairment which
can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can
be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than
[twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The
Act further provides that an individual "shall be
determined to be under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he
is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential
evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). In making
a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a sequential
five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520;
see Johnson, A2>A F.3d at 653. At step one, if
the claimant is currently 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 (Listing). See 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is included in the
Listing or is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability
is conclusively presumed. If the claimant's impairment
does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the analysis
proceeds to step four, where the claimant's residual
functional capacity (RFC) is assessed to determine whether
plaintiff 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 residual
functional capacity 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). The claimant bears the burden of proof at
steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482
U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If a decision regarding disability
can be made at any step of the process, then the inquiry
ceases. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
the analysis ended at step five when the ALJ considered
plaintiffs residual functional capacity and determined that,
although during the closed period of September 2012 to
October 2016 plaintiff was unable to perform his past
relevant work activities, during that time he was able to
perform other jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy. But the ALJ concluded that plaintiff became
an individual closely approaching advanced age under the
Medical-Vocational Rules on October 28, 2016 and, given
plaintiffs residual functional capacity, he became disabled
on that date. The Appeals Council later changed the onset
date to the date of the ALJ's decision: January 8, 2016.
ALJ's findings are not supported by substantial evidence
in the record. The ALJ found that plaintiff could perform
less than a full range of light work, determining that he
could "stand and walk for about four hours in an
eight-hour workday with normal breaks" and required a
cane "at all times when walking." [Tr. 105]. The
ALJ found that plaintiff suffered from degenerative disc
disease of the lumbar spine, cubital tunnel syndrome of the
right upper extremity, degenerative joint disease of the left
hip, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. [Tr. 102].
Critically, however, the ALJ failed to give adequate weight
to plaintiffs treating physician's opinion and failed to
adequately specify limitations in the RFC regarding
plaintiffs use of a cane.
deciding whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ must always
consider the medical opinions in the case record together
with the rest of the relevant evidence received. 20 C.F.R.
416.927(a)(2)(b). A medical opinion is a statement
"from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable
medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and
severity of [a claimant's] impairment(s), including [the
claimant's] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [she]
can still do despite impairment(s), and [her] physical or
mental restrictions." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(a)(2).
Treating source opinions are entitled to controlling weight
if they are "well supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and [are] not
inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in [the]
case record." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d)(2),
416.927(d)(2); see also Craig v. Chater, 16 F.3d
585, 590 (4th Cir. 1996). Factors that ALJs consider in
determining how much weight to afford a medical opinion
include (1) the examining relationship, (2) the treatment
relationship, (3) the supportability of the opinion, (4) the
consistency of the opinion with the record as a whole, (5)
the physician's specialization, and (6) other relevant
factors. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c).
case, the ALJ failed to either afford proper weight to the
opinion of plaintiffs treating physician, Dr. Manitus, or
provide adequate explanation for affording diminished weight
to Dr. Manitus's opinion. The ALJ's only reason for
discounting Dr. Manitus's opinion was that it was
inconsistent with her treatment notes, but upon careful
review of the record, it is plain that Dr. Manitus's
treating notes do not undermine her conclusions as to
plaintiffs medical conditions and, in particular, his pain.
In fact, Dr. Manitus's opinion was wholly consistent with
the medical evidence in the record, including plaintiff s
pain journal, Dr. Hill's opinion, and plaintiffs physical
therapy records. Dr. Manitus's opinion clearly
demonstrates that plaintiff was capable, at most, of
performing sedentary work from the alleged onset date.
the ALJ gave limited weight to Dr. Hill's opinion,
failing to consider all of the relevant medical evidence
contained in Dr. Hill's opinion. "An ALJ has the
obligation to consider all relevant medical evidence and
cannot simply cherrypick facts that support a finding of
nondisability while ignoring evidence that points to a
finding of disability." Lewis v. Berryhill, 858
F.3d 858, 869 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Denton v.
Astrue,596 F.3d 419, 425 (7th Cir. 2010)). By
cherrypicking particular ...