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Bingaman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

May 21, 2019

TERESA D. BINGAMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          David C. Keesler United States Magistrate Judge

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings” (Document No. 14) and Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 16). The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), and these motions are ripe for disposition. After careful consideration of the written arguments, the administrative record, and applicable authority, the undersigned will direct that Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings” (Document No. 14) be denied; that Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 16) be granted; and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Teresa D. Bingaman (“Plaintiff”), through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits. (Document No. 1). On or about October 24, 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405, alleging an inability to work due to a disabling condition beginning August 1, 2013. (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 13, 177-178). The Commissioner of Social Security (the “Commissioner” or “Defendant”) denied Plaintiff's application initially on or about March 5, 2015, and again after reconsideration on or about June 30, 2015. (Tr. 13, 93-96, 101-108). In its “Notice of Reconsideration, ” the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) included the following explanation of its decision:

The medical evidence shows that your condition is not severe enough to be considered disabling. Despite your back pain and discomfort, you are able to sit, stand, walk and move your arms without significant loss of control or muscle weakness. The medical evidence does not indicate that you have a condition that can be considered totally disabling at this time. We realize your condition keeps you from doing any of your past jobs, but it does not keep you from doing less demanding work. Based on your age, education, and past work experience, you can do other work. It has been decided, therefore, that you are not disabled according to the Social Security Act.

(Tr. 101).

         Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing on July 7, 2015. (Tr. 13, 109). On April 10, 2017, Plaintiff appeared and testified at a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Paul Goodson (the “ALJ”). (Tr. 13, 31-68). In addition, Karl S. Weldon, a vocational expert (“VE”), and Daniel A. Bridgman, Plaintiff's attorney, appeared at the hearing. Id.

         The ALJ issued a partially unfavorable decision on June 13, 2017. (Tr. 9-11, 13-26). On August 3, 2017, Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on February 21, 2018. (Tr. 1-3, 157). The ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's review request. (Tr. 1).

         Plaintiff's “Complaint” seeking a reversal of the ALJ's determination was filed in this Court on April 24, 2018. (Document No. 1). On August 30, 2018, the parties consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction in this matter. (Document No. 11).

         Plaintiff's “Motion For Judgment On The Pleadings” (Document No. 14) and Plaintiff's “Summary Of The Case” (Document No. 15) were filed October 30, 2018; and Defendant's “Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 16) and “Memorandum In Support Of Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment” (Document No. 17) were filed November 29, 2018. Plaintiff declined to file a reply brief, and the time to do so has lapsed. See Local Rule 7.2 (e). Based on the foregoing, the pending motions are now ripe for review and disposition.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision; and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

         The Fourth Circuit has made clear that it is not for a reviewing court to re-weigh the evidence or to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner - so long as that decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also, Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence has been defined as ‘more than a scintilla and [it] must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401).

         Ultimately, it is the duty of the Commissioner, not the courts, to make findings of fact and to resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979) (“This court does not find facts or try the case de novo when reviewing disability determinations.”); Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) (“We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistences in the medical evidence, and that it is the claimant who bears the risk of nonpersuasion.”). Indeed, so long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must be affirmed even if the reviewing court disagrees with the final outcome. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was under a “disability” as that term of art is defined for Social Security purposes, at any time between August 1, 2013 and the date of his decision.[1] (Tr. 13, 26). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The five steps are:

(1) whether claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity -if yes, not disabled;
(2) whether claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments that meet the duration requirement in § 404.1509 - if no, not disabled;
(3) whether claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listings in appendix 1, and meets the duration requirement -if yes, disabled;
(4) whether claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform her/his past relevant work - if yes, not disabled; and
(5) whether considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience he/she can make an adjustment to other work - if yes, not disabled.

20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v).

         The burden of production and proof rests with the claimant during the first four steps; if claimant is able to carry this burden, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step to show that work the claimant could perform is available in the national economy. Pass, 65 F.3d at 1203. In this case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was not disabled between August 1, 2013 and February 9, 2017. (Tr. 24-26). However, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was disabled as of February 9, 2017, the date her age category changed. Id.

         First, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since August 1, 2013, her alleged disability onset date. (Tr. 15). At the second step, the ALJ found that “lumbar degenerative disk disease, post fusion May of 2014; osteoarthritis; and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease” were severe impairments.[2] (Tr. 16). At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 16).

         Next, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and found that she retained the capacity to perform light work activity, with the following limitations:

occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; should avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes, humidity, pulmonary irritants, unprotected heights and unprotected machinery. The claimant is able to occasionally stoop, bend, squat, and kneel; and must have the ability to alternate between sitting and standing, once per hour, while remaining on task. The claimant requires the use of a cane for ambulation, standing, and balancing.

(Tr. 17). In making his finding, the ALJ stated that he “considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, based on the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1529 and SSRs 96-4p and 96-7p.” Id.

         At the fourth step, the ALJ held that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work as an assistant manager and executive housekeeper. (Tr. 24). At the fifth and final step, the ALJ concluded based on the testimony of the VE and “considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity” that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 24). Specifically, the VE testified that according to the factors given by the ALJ, occupations claimant could perform included a ticket taker, information clerk, and office helper. (Tr. 25). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a “disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, at any time between August 1, 2013 and February 9, 2017. In addition, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was disabled beginning February 9, 2017 through the date of his decision, June 13, 2017. (Tr. 14, 25-26).

         Plaintiff on appeal to this Court makes the following assignments of error: (1) the ALJ failed to perform “special-technique” analysis; (2) the ALJ made an improper credibility assessment; (3) the RFC is not supported by substantial evidence; and (4) the ALJ failed to assign weight to several medical opinions. (Document 15, p. 5). The undersigned will discuss each of these contentions in turn.

         A. Special ...


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