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Brownlee v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 16, 2019

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


          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Charles E. Brownlee ("Plaintiff's) brought this action pursuant to § 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 for review.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits in October of 2014, alleging a disability onset date of August 4, 2014. (Tr. at 12, 152-160.)[2] His application was denied initially (Tr. at 78-81) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 85-92). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative heating de novo befote an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tt. at 150-151.) Plaintiff, along with his attorney and a vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing on May 30, 2017. (Tr. at 25.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act from his alleged onset date of August 4, 2014 through August I, 2017, the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. at 20.) On May 23, 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 1-5.)


         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 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 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 . . . is not whether [a 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.5" 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." KL 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 'severely5 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 (CRFC)." Id. at 179. 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. IA 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" during the period since his alleged onset date of August 4, 2014. Plaintiff therefore met his burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

epicondylitis, neuropathy, degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, obesity, and bilateral patella alta.

(Tr. at 15.) The ALJ found at step three that these impairments did not meet or equal a listing. (Tr. at 16.) Plaintiff does not challenge this listing determination at step three. The ALJ then assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that he could perform light work

except the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs and never climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, and never work around hazardous machinery, unprotected heights, or with vibrating equipment. The claimant can frequently handle bilaterally and occasionally finger bilaterally. The claimant cannot be exposed to concentrated extreme hot or cold temperatures.

(Tr. at 16.) Based on the RFC determination, the ALJ found under step four of the analysis that Plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work, that is, medium, skilled work as a machinist. (Tr. at 19.) The ALJ then determined at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert as to these factors, he could perform other jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. at 19-20.)

         Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 20.) Plaintiff now argues that the ALJ erred in two respects. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ erred in her RFC assessment because she "either failed to explain how severe impairments limited his function or failed to acknowledge impairments entirely." (Pl. Br. [Doc. #10] at 7.) Second, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ's assessment of his subjective complaints, contending that "the ALJ erroneously rejected his mother's statement, failed to consider the extent of his activities, and failed to consider both his response and access to medication." (Id, at 18.)

         A. RFC

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment is "unexplained and incomplete." (Pl. Br. at 4.) As explained below, this challenge lacks merit.

         "RFC is a measurement of the most a claimant can do despite [the claimant's] limitations." Hines, 453 F.3d at 562 (noting that administrative regulations require the RFC to reflect a claimant's "ability to do sustained work-related physical and mental activities in a work setting on a regular and continuing basis . . . [which] means 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule" (internal emphasis and quotation marks omitted)). The RFC includes both a "physical exertional or strength limitation" that assesses the claimant's "ability to do sedentary, light, medium, heavy, or very heavy work," as well as "nonexertional limitations (mental, sensory, or skin impairments)." Hall, 658 F.2d at 265. "RFC is to be determined by the ALJ only after [the. ALJ] considers all relevant evidence of a claimant's impairments and any related symptoms (e.g., pain)." Hines, 453 F.3d at 562-63.

         Here, the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiffs RFC is both susceptible to judicial review and supported by substantial evidence. First, as noted, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: epicondylitis, neuropathy, degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, obesity, and bilateral patella alta. (Tr. at 15.)

         Second, the ALJ then pointed to sufficient objective medical evidence to support her RFC determination. (Tr. at 21-24.) For example, the ALJ noted that at Plaintiffs consultative examination, in November of 2014, he did not have a cane despite reporting that he needed one; he appeared comfortable sitting; he displayed some L3-4 paraspinal muscle tenderness, but otherwise no spinal tenderness or spasms; he could squat; he had normal lower extremity strength; and he could rise both sitting and supine without difficulty, though his gait was somewhat slow and deliberate. (Tr. at 17, 285-287.) The ALJ also pointed to a 2015 MRI of Plaintiffs cervical spine showing degenerative changes, but with generally mild findings[3] (Tr. at 17, 389), as well as a 2016 MRI of the spine showing only mild central spinal stenosis at L4-5, and moderate disc space narrowing at L5-S1 (Tr. at 17, 406-407). The ALJ also pointed to a 2016 finding of full range of motion of the elbows and wrist (Tr. at 17, 294-295) and another 2016 finding in which Plaintiff demonstrated normal gait and station (Tr. at 17, 315). The ALJ next pointed to a 2017 MRI of the right elbow showing mild to moderate lateral epicondylitis, and an MRI of the left elbow that was normal. (Tr. at 402-404.) The evidence to which the ALJ pointed is consistent with and demonstrative of the overall longitudinal record that regularly showed that Plaintiff had full range of motion of the upper extremities, "5/5" strength, normal coordination, and intact fine finger movements. (Tr. 17, 294, 331, 345, 347, 352, 358, 362, 365, 369, 377, 381, 384, 389-90, 396, 399.)

         The ALJ also pointed to the medical opinions of the non-examining state agency physicians, whose opinions she concluded were "consistent with the record." (Tr. at 18.) Specifically, Dr. Robert Pyle initially determined that Plaintiff could perform light work with postural limitations and environmental limitations. (Tr. at 57-66.) Dr. Dakota Cox conducted the reconsideration and also concluded that Plaintiff could perform light work with postural and environmental limitations. (Tr. at 68-75.) The ALJ observed that both opinions were generally consistent with the record, however, she only afforded these opinions "some weight" because she concluded that they did not adequately account for "the claimant's elbow and radiculopathy symptoms, which limit his upper extremity functioning." (Tr. at 18.) Consequently, the ALJ essentially adopted the limitations set forth by Drs. Pyle and Cox, but also added manipulative limitations to the RFC determination by restricting Plaintiff to only frequent handling and only occasional fingering. (Tr. at 16.)

         Next, in determining Plaintiffs RFC, the ALJ further relied upon Plaintiffs activities of daily living, which included the performance of household chores, walking for exercise, [4]working in the yard, looking for work, preparing simple meals, washing laundry, doing light repair work, driving, shopping, handling his own money, paying attention for as long needed, spending time with family and friends, and completing what he started. (Tr. at 15, 18, 230-237.) In light of all this, and notwithstanding Plaintiffs arguments to the contrary, the Court concludes that the ALJ's decision to limit Plaintiff to light work with ...

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