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Teele Moore v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 30, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,[1] Defendant.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Brandon Alexander Teele Moore ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.G §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on November 25, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2013. (Tr. at 18, 280-85, 286-95.)[2] His applications were denied initially (Tr. at 106-27, 168-72) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 128-67, 180-99). Thereafter Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 200-03.) On June 26, 2017, Plaintiff, along with his attorney and an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), attended the subsequent hearing. (Tr. at 76-105.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 15-35), and, on January 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 3-8, 279).


         Federal 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 review of such a decision is "extremely limited." Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "The courts are not to try the case de novo." Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, "a reviewing 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." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation 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, 390 (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 Cit. 2001) (internal citations and 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).

         "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 [ALJ]." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and 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 ALJ." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing 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 Or. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). 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)).[3]

         "The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims." Hancock 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)). "Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy.” Id.

         A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation 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).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at the first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets or equals a "listed impairment" at step three, "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," then "the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ('RFC')." Id. at 179.[4] 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. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a significant No. of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite the claimant's impairments." Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, 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 Government cannot carry its "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.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since his alleged onset date. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff met his burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. (Tr. at 20.) At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

Ehlers-Danlos syndrome - hypermobility type (EDS); anxiety disorder; peripheral neuropathy; obesity.

(Id.)[5] The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 21-23.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that he could perform sedentary work with further limitations. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff:

Has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except the claimant must use a cane for ambulation; he can frequently handle and finger items with the bilateral upper extremities; he can frequently climb ramps and stairs; he can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; he can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; [he] can never work at unprotected height; he is limited to the performance of simple, routine, repetitive tasks; he is limited to simple work-related decisions; and while he can never interact with the public, he can occasionally interact with coworkers and supervisors.

(Tr. at 23.) Under step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have any past relevant work. (Tr. at 32.) However, the ALJ concluded at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, along with the testimony of the VE regarding those factors, Plaintiff could perform other jobs available in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. at 33-34.)

         Plaintiff now raises four challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues that "[t]he ALJ performed an improper listing analysis" (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #15] at 5) in finding that Plaintiff did not meet Listing 11.14. Second, Plaintiff contends that "[t]he ALJ improperly evaluated [Plaintiffs] credibility." (Id. at 10.) Third, Plaintiff asserts that "[t]he ALJ's assigned RFC is not supported by substantial evidence and the analysis frustrates meaningful review." (Id. at 13.) Fourth, Plaintiff maintains that "[t]he ALJ did not adequately explain weight given to medical opinions." (Id. at 15.) After a careful review of the record, the Court finds no

         A. Listing 11.14

         Plaintiff first contends that "the ALJ . . . conducted an improper listing analysis in finding that [Plaintiff] did not meet [L]isting 11.14" (Peripheral Neuropathy). QA at 5.) In particular, Plaintiff asserts that his EDS meets the requirements of paragraph B of Listing 11.14, in that it causes him to suffer "marked limitation in physical functioning" (id. at 6) and "marked restrictions in interacting with others and concentration, persistence or pace" (id. at 7). According to Plaintiff, the ALJ's analysis regarding Listing 11.14 "frustrates meaningful review" by this Court, because it "is conclusory," "does not cite to any evidence in the record," and "only addresses the [paragraph] A criteria" of Listing 11.14. Plaintiffs contentions do not warrant relief.

         At step three of the sequential analysis, the ALJ considers whether any impairment meets or equals one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. The listings define impairments which are so severe that they would "prevent an adult, regardless of his age, education, or work experience, from performing any gainful activity, not just substantial gainful activity.5" Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). For a claimant to demonstrate that he qualifies for a listing, and therefore is entitled to a conclusive presumption of disabled status, he must meet all of the medical criteria specified for that listing. Id. at 531. An impairment that meets only some of the listing criteria, no matter how severe, will not qualify. Id. Similarly, "[f]or a claimant to qualify for benefits by showing that his unlisted impairment, or combination of impairments, is 'equivalent' to a listed impairment, he must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment." Id. (emphasis in original).

         Notably, at step three, an ALJ is not requited to explicitly identify and discuss every possible listing; however, he is compelled to provide a coherent basis for his step three determination, particularly where the "medical record includes a fair amount of evidence" that a claimant's impairment meets a disability listing. Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013). Where such evidence exists but is rejected without discussion, "insufficient legal analysis makes it impossible for a reviewing court to evaluate whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings." Id. (citing Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168,1173 (4th Cir. 1986)). Thus, the ALJ's decision must include "a sufficient discussion of the evidence and explanation of its reasoning such that meaningful judicial review is possible." Meador v. Colvin, No. 7:13-CV-214, 2015 WL 1477894, at *3 (W.D. Va. Mar. 27, 2015) (citing Smith v. Astrue, 457 F. App'x 326, 328 (4th Cir. 2011)). However, it is possible that even "[a] cursory explanation" at step three may prove "satisfactory so long as the decision as a whole demonstrates that the ALJ considered the relevant evidence of record and there is substantial evidence to support the conclusion." Id.


         In order to meet Listing 11.14B, a claimant must demonstrate:

         B. Marked limitation in physical functioning, and in one of the following:

1. Understanding, remembering, or applying information; or
2. Interacting with others; or
3. Concentrating, persisting, or maintaining ...

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