United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
TERESA D. BINGAMAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
C. Keesler United States Magistrate Judge
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
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
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.
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).
“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
“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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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).
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).
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. (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
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).
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.
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. (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).
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,
(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
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).
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.