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Mccall v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 26, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          OSTEEN, JR., District Judge

         Plaintiff, Sherry Leanne McCall, brought this action under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) benefits. (Complaint (“Compl.”) (Doc. 1).)[1] The court has before it the certified administrative record (cited herein as “Tr. ”), as well as the parties' cross-motions for judgment, (Docs. 10, 13; see also Pl.'s Brief (“Pl.'s Mem.”) (Doc. 11); Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for J. on the Pleadings (“Def.'s Mem.”) (Doc. 14).) For the reasons that follow, the court will enter judgment for Defendant.


         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI. (Tr. 258-70.) Upon denial of those applications initially, (Tr. 171-80), and on reconsideration, (Tr. 186-05), she requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”), (see Tr. 211-25). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (the “VE”) attended the hearing. (See Tr. 35-50.) The ALJ subsequently ruled Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 16-34.) The Appeals Council denied her request for review, (Tr. 1-6), making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the . . . Act through December 31, 2013.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 25, 2013, the alleged onset date.
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: history of motor vehicle accident, degenerative disc disease, radiculopathy, neuropathy, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder.
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CPR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity [(at times, the “RFC”)] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except [Plaintiff] avoid [sic] concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights or moving machinery. [Plaintiff] should not climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds but could occasionally stoop. She could frequently climb ramps and stairs, kneel, crouch, and crawl. There would be no limitations with balance. She could frequently perform handling and fingering with the left hand. Additionally, [Plaintiff] could remember and carry out at least simple instructions while performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks. [Plaintiff] should not perform jobs with a production quota. She can maintain concentration for at least two hours at a time. [Plaintiff] could respond appropriately to routine work settings, but no highly stressful situations. She could have infrequent contact with the public and occasional contact with supervisors and coworkers.
6. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work.
10. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC], there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.
11. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the . . . Act, from January 25, 2013, through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 21-28 (bold font and parenthetical citations omitted).)


         Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of [the court's] review of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under this extremely limited review standard.

         A. Standard of Review

         “[C]ourts are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, the court “must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “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 [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before [the court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         When confronting that issue, the court must take note that “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context, “disability” means the “‘inability 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 12 months, '” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[2]“To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration has . . . detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, and work experience in addition to [the claimant's] medical condition.” Id. “These regulations establish a ‘sequential evaluation process' to determine whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.

         This sequential evaluation process (the “SEP”) has up to five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity,' i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a ‘severe' impairment that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings' of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past work or (5) any other work.” Albright v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999).[3] A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in the SEP forecloses an award and ends the inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is ‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first three steps, “the claimant is disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., “[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's [RFC].” Id. at 179.[4] Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can perform past relevant work; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. See Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, whereupon the ALJ must decide “whether the 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, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the Commissioner cannot carry her “evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community, ” the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.[5]

         B. Assignments of Error

         Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ “erred in the weight afforded to the medical opinion evidence, ” (Doc. 10 at 1), and also failed to “offer[] legally sufficient reasons supported by substantial evidence in the record for rejecting Plaintiff's symptom reports.” (Id.). Plaintiff further asserts that “remand for payment of benefits is the appropriate remedy.” (Id.) Defendant contends otherwise and urges that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings. (See Doc. 14.)

         1. Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ erred in his consideration of the medical opinions of Dr. William A. Hensel, Dr. Ralph C. Bobbitt, Dr. Robert N. Pyle, and Dr. Ellen Huffman-Zechman. (See Pl.'s Mem. (Doc. 11) at 4-17.) In particular, Plaintiff maintains that “[t]he ALJ should have afforded greater weight to Dr. Hensel's [2014] opinion, ” (id. at 8), in part because the ALJ allegedly failed to consider the “factors required by 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2), ” (id. at 9), in evaluating Dr. Hensel's opinion. (See Id. at 4-12.) In addition, she contends that “[t]he ALJ's rejection of Dr. Bobbitt's opinion failed to be legally sufficient or based on substantial evidence in the record.” (Id. at 14.) Finally, she faults the ALJ for “afford[ing] the non-examining source opinions ‘great' weight.” (Id. at 15; see Id. at 14-16.) Plaintiff's arguments lack merit.

         (a) Applicable Standards

         Plaintiff filed her claim before March 27, 2017, (see Tr. 258-70), rendering it subject to the treating physician rule, see 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527. Under this rule, an ALJ generally must afford controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source as to the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment, on the theory that treating sources “provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [the claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1527(c)(2). The rule also recognizes, however, that not all treating sources or treating source opinions deserve such ...

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