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Davis v. Saul

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

July 8, 2019

Denise Winston Davis, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Denise Davis instituted this action in July 2018 to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Davis claims that Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Gary Brockington erred in (1) determining her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and (2) failing to accord proper weight to the medical opinion evidence. Both Davis and Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 19, 21.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the undersigned has determined that ALJ Brockington reached the appropriate determination. The undersigned finds that ALJ Brockington's RFC allowed Davis to use a cane in the appropriate circumstances. And ALJ Brockington properly considered the medical evidence and explained why the treating provider's opinion deserved limited weight. Therefore, the district court should deny Davis's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's determination.[1]

         I. Background

         In June 2015 Davis applied for disability insurance benefits and later applied for supplemental security income. In both applications, Davis alleged a disability that began in March 2015. After her claims were denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Davis appeared before an ALJ Brockington for a hearing to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. ALJ Brockington determined Davis was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 13-28.

         ALJ Brockington found that Davis had several severe impairments: obesity, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with radiculopathy, lumbar spinal stenosis and spondylosis, sciatica, chronic pain syndrome, depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and sleep/wake disorder. Tr. at 16. ALJ Brockington also found that Davis's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 18.

         ALJ Brockington then determined that Davis had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work. Tr. at 20. Davis requires the option of standing for one to five minutes after 30 minutes of sitting and to sit for one to five minutes after 30 minutes of standing or walking. Id.

         She can occasionally push, pull, and operate foot controls with the lower left extremity. Davis can occasionally climb ramps or stairs but she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Id. Davis can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. Id. She can have occasional exposure to vibration, hazardous machinery, or hazardous moving mechanical parts, but no exposure to unprotected heights. Id.

         Davis is limited to jobs that can be performed while using a handheld assistive device (a cane). Id. Davis requires the assistive device at all times when she is walking. Id. She could use her opposite hand and arm to lift and carry up to the exertional limits. Id.

         Davis's work is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks not performed at a production-rate pace. Id. She can make simple, work-related decisions. Id. Davis may have frequent interactions with co-workers and supervisors but only occasional interaction with the public. Id. She would be off-task no more than 10% of the time in an eight-hour workday, besides normal breaks (with normal breaks defined as 15-minute morning and afternoon breaks and a 30-minute lunch break). Id.

         ALJ Brockington concluded that Davis could not perform her past relevant work as a records clerk, cashier checker, or security guard. Tr. at 26. But considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, ALJ Brockington found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Davis could perform. Id. These include shipping and receiving weigher, laundry folder, and small parts assembler. Tr. at 27. Even if Davis were limited to sedentary work with the same limitations, there were jobs that Davis could perform. These jobs include document preparer and final assembler. Tr. at 27-28. Thus, ALJ Brockington found that Davis was not disabled. Tr. at 28.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Davis began this action in July 2018. D.E. 5.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to determining whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The ALJ must consider the factors in order. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. But if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         C. Medical Background

         Davis suffered a work-related back injury in March 2015 when she was involved in an altercation with a customer. Tr. at 21. Ten months later, she again injured her back while lifting a heavy box. Id.

         In October 2015, Dr. Constant Masere performed a consultative examination. Tr. at 24. He concluded that Davis could sit normally during an eight-hour workday but she had moderate limitations on standing, ...

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