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Clinton v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 5, 2019

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



         Plaintiff Andre Renard Clinton ("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 denying his 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.


         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on February 19, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of January 24, 2014. (Tr. at 18, 161-67, 182-83.)[2] His application was denied initially (Tr. at 63-69, 84-92) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 70-79, 94-101). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 102-03.) On November 4, 2016, Plaintiff, along with his attorney and an impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing. (Tr. at 37-62.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 15-31), and, on February 6, 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 1-6, 13-14, 160).


         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 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)).[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 Or. 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:

degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine with left radiculopathy status-post laminectomy; status-post left femur fracture with closed reduction and intramedullary nailing repair.

(Id.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 22.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that he could perform light work with further limitations. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff can perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) including stand and walk up to six hours in an eight-hour day, can sit for up to six hours in an eight-hour day except can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; can occasionally climb ramps and stairs; frequently balance; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; and can tolerate occasional exposure to extreme cold.

         (Tr. at 23.) Under step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have any past relevant work. (Tr. at 30.) However, the ALJ concluded at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, along with the testimony of the vocational expert regarding those factors, Plaintiff could perform other jobs available in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. at 30-31.)

         Plaintiff now raises three challenges to the ALJ's decision. First, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ "fail[ed] to conduct a proper function-by-function analysis of [Plaintiffs] impairments" (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #15] at 5) in violation of Mascio v. Colvin. 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), and Social Security Ruling 96-8p, Policy Interpretation Ruling Titles II and XVI: Assessing Residual Functional Capacity in Initial Claims. 1996 WL 374184 guly2, 1996) ("SSR 96-8p") (Pl.'s Br. at 6). Second, Plaintiff contends that the Commissioner's "assertion of the affirmative defense of res judicata was improper." (Jd. at 16.) Third, Plaintiff asserts that his "claim should be remanded for a new hearing before a different constitutionally appointed judge because [ALJ] Saindon's appointment did not comply with the Appointments Clause at the time she rendered her decision in [Plaintiffs] claim." (JdL at 17.) After a careful review of the record, the Court finds no basis for remand.

         A. Function-by-Function Assessment

         Plaintiff first "contends that the ALJ's failure to conduct a proper function-by-function analysis of [Plaintiffs] impairments prevented the ALJ from determining (i) whether [Plaintiffs] left upper extremity impairment was a medically determinable impairment and the impact it would have on the RFC, (ii) determining whether [Plaintiff] would require a cane for work activities involving standing and/or walking and determining whether plaintiff] would require an option to alternate between sitting, standing and walking throughout the workday for pain management and (iii) properly assessing the opinions of the treating physicians," in violation of Mascio and SSR 96-8p pi. Br. at 5-6). Plaintiff additionally faults the ALJ for improperly evaluating his subjective complaints of pain. pi. Br. at 15-16.) Plaintiffs contentions do not warrant relief.

         As SSR 96-8p instructs, "[t]he RFC assessment must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis," including the functions listed in the regulations. SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. "Only after such a function-by-function analysis may an ALJ express RFC in terms of the exertional levels of work." Monroe v. Colvin. No. 12-1098, 2016 WL 3349355, at *9 (4th Cir. June 16, 2016) (internal quotations and citations omitted). Further, the "RFC assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations)." SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *7. An ALJ must "both identify evidence that supports his conclusion and build an accurate and logical bridge from [that] evidence to his conclusion." Woods v. BerryhilL 888 F.3d 686, 694 (4th Or. 2018) (emphasis omitted).

         The Fourth Circuit has noted that a perse rule requiring remand when the ALJ does not perform an explicit function-by-function analysis "is inappropriate given that remand would prove futile in cases where the ALJ does not discuss functions that are 'irrelevant or uncontested.'" Mascio. 780 F.3d at 636 (quoting Cichocki v. Astrue.729 F.3d 172, 177 (2d Cir. 2013) (per curiam)). Rather, remand may be appropriate "where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where other inadequacies in the ALJ's analysis frustrate meaningful review." Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (quoting Cichocki, 729 F.3d at 177). The court in Mascio concluded that remand was appropriate because it was "left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at his conclusions on [the claimant's] ability to perform relevant functions" because the ALJ had "said nothing about [the claimant's] ability to perform them for a full workday," despite conflicting evidence as to the claimant's RFC that the ALJ did not address. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 637; see Monroe v. Colvin.826 F.3d 176, 187-88 (4th Cir. 2016) ...

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