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Kennedy v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

July 8, 2019

BOBBIE SUE KENNEDY, Plaintiff/Claimant,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert B. Jones Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-24, -26] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Bobbie Sue Kennedy ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is allowed, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is denied, and the case is remanded to the Commissioner, pursuant to sentence four of § 405(g), for further proceedings.


         Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on December 12, 2013, alleging disability beginning August 25, 2008. (R. 15, 283-84). Her claims were approved initially with an established onset date of April 14, 2014. (R. 15, 126-49). Claimant appealed the decision based on the onset date. (R. 15, 190-93). Upon reconsideration, she was determined to be not disabled and denied all benefits. (R. 15, 150-77). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on July 31, 2017, at which Claimant, represented by counsel; a witness; and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 15, 51-125). On October 24, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 12-50). On June 19, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-6). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.


         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffinan v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "The findings of the Commissioner ... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence," Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "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 [Commissioner]." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).


         The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:

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 [in severity] 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 ... past work or (5) any other work.

Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chafer, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Id.

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairments): understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing oneself. Id. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred in weighing the medical opinions and formulating the RFC. Pl.' s Mem. [DE-25] at 7-19.


         Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had engaged in substantial gainful employment from August 2008 to April 2009, but there had been a continuous twelvemonth period during which she did not engage in substantial gainful activity. (R. 18). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: residual effects of left knee surgeries, bursitis, degenerative disc disease, lumbar radiculopathy, lumbar facet arthropathy, migraines, headaches, fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, personality disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder ("PTSD"). Id. The ALJ also found Claimant had nonsevere impairments of asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, costochondritis, esophageal reflux, hemorrhoids, osteopenia, vitamin D deficiency, scoliosis, sinusitis, rhinitis, herpes zoster, fibrocystic breast disease, and obsessive compulsive disorder. (R. 19-21). However, at step three, the ALJ concluded these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 21-24). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in moderate limitations in understanding, remembering, or applying information; interacting with others; concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace; and adapting or managing herself. Id.

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work[1] requiring the following limitations: occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; frequently reach, reach overhead, handle objects, and finger bilaterally; no exposure to very loud noise; occasional exposure to loud noise; occasional exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dust, odors, fumes, and gases and to poorly ventilated areas; occasional exposure to unprotected heights, hazardous machinery, or hazardous moving mechanical tasks; simple, routine, and repetitive tasks but not at a production rate pace; simple work-related decisions; occasional interaction with the public, coworkers, and supervisors; and being off task no more than ten percent of an eight-hour workday in addition to normal work breaks. (R. 24-40). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms not entirely consistent with the medical and other evidence. (R. 27).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a cashier checker, telephone operator, or benefits clerk. (R. 40-41). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment opportunities that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (R. 41-42).

         V. DISCUSSION

         A. The ALJ erred in weighing the opinion evidence.

         Claimant contends the ALJ erred in weighing several medical opinions. Pl's Mem. [DE-25] at 7-19. When assessing a claimant's RFC, the ALJ must consider the opinion evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3). Regardless of the source, the ALJ must evaluate every medical opinion received. Id. § 404.1527(c).[2] In general, the ALJ should give more weight to the opinion of an unless there are additional limiting factors such as the loss of fine dexterity or the inability to sit for long periods of examining medical source than to the opinion of a non-examining source. Id. § 404.1527(c)(1). Additionally, more weight is generally given to opinions of treating sources, who usually are most able to provide "a detailed, longitudinal picture" of a claimant's alleged disability, than non-treating sources such as consultative examiners. Id. ยง 404.1527(c)(2). When the opinion of a treating source regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's impairments is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other ...

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