United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
OSTEEN, JR., District Judge
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.
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.
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.
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,
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]
11. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined
in the . . . Act, from January 25, 2013, through the date of
(Tr. 21-28 (bold font and parenthetical citations omitted).)
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.
Standard of Review
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).
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).
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)).“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.
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). 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).
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. 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.
Assignments of Error
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.)
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  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.
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