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Lauder v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 31, 2019

NORMA LAUDER, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Norma Lauder ("Plaintiff") brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security with respect to her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on February 7, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of July 12, 2010. (Tr. at 181-182.)[2] Her application was denied initially (Tr. at 114-117) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 122-129). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 130-131.) Plaintiff, along with her attorney, attended the subsequent hearing on May 2, 2013. (Tr. at 52.) Following the hearing, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the Act from July 12, 2010 through June 25, 2012. (Tr. at 33.) He further found that, beginning June 26, 2012, medical improvement occurred such that Plaintiff no longer met the requirements of the Act. (Tr. at 35, 38.) On September 19, 2014, 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 1-5.)

         Plaintiff appealed the ALJ's decision to this Court and the Commissioner voluntarily agreed to request a remand for further review of new evidence submitted to the Commissioner after the ALJ issued his decision.[3] (Tr. at 916-922.) Upon remand, on February 9, 2017, Plaintiff, along with her attorney, attended a second hearing. (Tr. at 865-914.) Following the hearing, the ALJ, in a decision rendered on August 17, 2017, again concluded that Plaintiff was disabled within the meaning of the Act from July 12, 2010 through June 25, 2012. (Tr. at 834.) He further found that, beginning June 26, 2012, medical improvement occurred such that Plaintiff no longer met the requirements of the Act. (Tr. at 835, 846.) On April 11, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review, thereby making the ALJ's conclusions the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review. (Tr. at 803-807.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         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 Or. 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 Cir. 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)).

         "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 dsability 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 cleats 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 [ALJ] to prove that a significant number 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 ALJ 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.

         When determining whether a claimant who has previously been found to be disabled continues to be disabled, the ALJ uses an eight-step sequential evaluation process. This eight-step process provides that: (1) if the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity, disability ends; (2) if the claimant has an impairment of combination of impairments that meets or medically equals a listing, disability continues; (3) if the claimant does not meet or equal a listing, the ALJ will determine whether "medical improvement" has occurred;[5] (4) if medical improvement has occurred, the ALJ will determine whether the improvement is related to the claimant's ability to work; (5) if there is no medical improvement, or the medical improvement is found to be unrelated to the claimant's ability to work, disability continues, subject to certain regulatory exceptions; (6) if there has been medical improvement related to the claimant's ability to work, the ALJ will determine whether all of the current impairments, in combination, are "severe," and if not, disability ends; (7) if the claimant's impairments are considered "severe," the ALJ will determine the claimant's RFC, and if the claimant is able to perform past relevant work, disability ends; (8) if the claimant is unable to perform past relevant work, the ALJ will determine whether the claimant can perform other work given his or her residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(f); Tickle v. Berryhill, No. 1:16CV204, 2017 WL 3382463, at *3 (M.D. N.C. Aug. 4, 2017) (concluding that the eight-step sequential analysis would apply in cases where the ALJ finds a closed period of disability).

         III. DISCUSSION

         In the present case, the relevant period under consideration is from June 26, 2012, the date the ALJ found that Plaintiffs disability ended, through August 17, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 846.) In his decision, the ALJ initially found that Plaintiff had engaged in "substantial gainful activity" during the following period: August 25, 2014 through November 7, 2014. (Tr. at 830.) The ALJ next found that despite this there had been a twelvemonth period during which Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" during the remainder of the relevant period. (Id.) Plaintiff therefore met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that, from July 12, 2010 to June 25, 2012, Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

seizure disorder due to left temporal impairment causing neurological dysfunction and cognitive impairment, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and psychological impairments including depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

(Tr. at 830 (internal citations omitted).) The ALJ found at step three that from July 12, 2010 through July 25, 2012, Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of a listed impairment. (Tr. at 831.) The ALJ next found that from July 12, 2010 through June 25, 2012, Plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work involving simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a nonproduction environment, but not on a regular and consistent full-time basis. (Tr. at 831-832.) At step four, the ALJ found that from July 12, 2010 through June 25, 2012, Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 834.) At step five, the ALJ concluded that from July 12, 2010 through June 25, 2012, considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were not jobs in the national economy that she could have performed. (Tr. at 835.) Therefore, Plaintiff was under a disability, as defined by the Act, during that period. (Id.)

         The ALJ further determined that, beginning June 26, 2012, Plaintiffs disability ended. (Id.) The ALJ therefore followed the eight-step sequential evaluation process, and found that as of June 26, 2012, Plaintiff had not developed any new impairments, so her severe impairments remained the same. (Id.) The ALJ then found that as of June 26, 2012, Plaintiffs impairments did not meet or equal a Listing. (Tr. at 836.) The ALJ further found that medical improvement had occurred as of June 26, 2012, and that it related to Plaintiffs ability to work. (Tr. at 837.) The ALJ therefore considered Plaintiffs RFC and concluded that she could perform light work with additional restrictions. Specifically, the ALJ found that:

beginning June 26, 2012, the claimant has had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that she is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks of unskilled work; low stress, which is more fully defined as no constant change in routine, no complex decision making, and no crisis situations; no production rate work; occasional interaction with the public; occasional interaction with supervisors and coworkers; can stay on task for two hours at a time; avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights, moving machinery, and other dangerous conditions.

(Tr. at 837-838.)

         The ALJ next found that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work (Tr. at 845), but determined that, given her age, education, work experience, and RFC, along with the vocational expert's testimony as to these factors, Plaintiff could perform other jobs available in the national economy beginning June 26, 2012. (Tr. at 25-26.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was no longer disabled under the Act as of that date through the date of the August 17, 2017 decision. (Tr. at 846.)

         In the present appeal, Plaintiff contends that "[t]he ALJ improperly evaluated the opinion evidence" of Dr. Craig DuBois. (Pl's Br. at 6.) Plaintiff also contends that a remand is required because the Appeals Council erred by failing to consider new and material evidence. (Id. at 10.) The Court considers each contention in turn.

         A. The Treating Source Rule

         Plaintiff first challenges the ALJ's decision to only assign "some weight" to Dr. DuBois' medical opinions. (Id. at 7-8.) This argument implicates 20 C.F.R. ยง 404.1527(c), better known as the "treating physician rule." This rule generally requires an ALJ to give controlling weight to the well-supported opinion of a treating source as to the nature and ...


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