United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division
MARY C. RIGGS, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
TERRENCE W. BOYLE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions
for judgment on the pleadings [DE 29, 32]. The motions have
been fully briefed and are ripe for disposition. A hearing on
this matter was held at Edenton, North Carolina on August 30,
2019. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs motion for
judgment on the pleadings [DE 29] is GRANTED and
defendant's motion [DE 32] is DENIED.
brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the
Commissioner denying his claim for a period of disability and
disability insurance benefits (DIB) under Title II of the
Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed his application on
August 20, 2015, alleging disability dating back to July 15,
2015. A hearing was held before an administrative law judge
(ALJ) on October 11, 2017. The ALJ issued a decision in
December 2017, finding that plaintiff was not disabled. In
May 22, . 2018, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request
for review, making the ALJ's decision the final
administrative decision of the Commissioner.
2018, plaintiff filed the complaint at issue, seeking
judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision
under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). [DE 5].
In February 2019, plaintiff moved for judgment on the
pleadings. [DE 29]. Defendant moved for judgment on the
pleadings in May 2019. [DE 32].
the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and
1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's
decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a
whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the
Commissioner employed the correct legal standard.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971).
Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650,
653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and
citation omitted). Courts should not make their own
credibility determinations or substitute their own judgments
for the judgments of the ALJs. Radford v. Colvin,
734 F.3d 288, 296 (4th Cir. 2013).
individual is considered disabled if he is unable "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
[twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The
Act further provides that an individual "shall be
determined to be under a disability only if his physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he
is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage
in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in
the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential
evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). In making
a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a sequential
five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520;
see Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653. At step one, if the
claimant is currently 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 (Listing). See 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is included in the
Listing or is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability
is conclusively presumed. If the claimant's impairment
does not meet or equal a listed impairment, then the analysis
proceeds to step four, where the claimant's residual
functional capacity is assessed to determine whether
plaintiff 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 residual
functional capacity 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). The claimant bears the burden of proof at
steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482
U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If a decision regarding disability
can be made at any step of the process, then the inquiry
ceases. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4). Here, the analysis ended at step five when the
ALJ considered plaintiffs residual functional capacity and
determined that, although plaintiff was unable to perform her
past relevant work activities, she was able to perform other
jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national
argues that the ALJ erred in (1) finding no inconsistency
between plaintiffs limitation to "simple, routine, and
repetitive tasks" and the VE's testimony that she
was capable of performing certain jobs with Reasoning Levels
2 and 3; (2) failing to account for plaintiffs limitations in
concentration, persistence, and pace in determining
plaintiffs residual functional capacity; (3) improperly
discounting the opinion of treating physician Michael
Woodbridge, M.D.; and (4) improperly discounting the opinion
of the agency's own psychological expert.
Court finds that, at least with regard to plaintiffs third
and fourth arguments, the ALJ committed reversible error that
is appropriate because the ALJ improperly discounted Dr.
Woodbridge's opinion. The ALJ gave "little
weight" to the opinion because it was "not
supported by treating notes[.]" [Tr. 19], Plaintiff
argues that she met her obligation to provide the ALJ notice
of Dr. Woodbridge's medical source statement and that the
agency repeatedly told her that it would obtain relevant
medical records itself. Simply stated, plaintiff contends it
was the agency's own fault for not having the treating
notes and it was therefore improper for the ALJ to discount
Dr. Woodbridge's opinion for lack of supporting notes.
Defendant responds that plaintiff has shown no prejudice, as
required by Camp v. Massanari, 22 Fed.Appx. 311 (4th
Cir. 2001). The Court agrees with plaintiff. Plaintiff
satisfied her notice obligation regarding Dr.
Woodbridge's records and the ALJ explicitly discounted
Dr. Woodbridge's opinion for lack of source treating
notes. Had the agency fulfilled its obligation to obtain Dr.
Woodbridge's records, the ALJ would have had the treating
notes, which support the opinion. Plaintiff has therefore
is also appropriate because the ALJ failed to adequately
explain its reasons for discounting Dr. Mark Besen,
Ph.D's opinion, while simultaneously fully crediting the
opinions of other the state psychological consultants.
Factors that ALJs consider in determining how much weight to
afford a medical opinion include (1) the examining
relationship, (2) the treatment relationship, (3) the
supportability of the opinion, (4) the consistency of the
opinion with the record as a whole, (5) the physician's
specialization, and (6) other relevant factors. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1527(c). Here, the ALJ explicitly discounted the
opinion of its retained psychological expert, Dr. Besen,
because it was based only on a "one-time"
examination. [Tr. 19]. But the ALJ then afforded
"substantial weight" to three other state-retained
psychological consultants who never examined plaintiff at
all. Nowhere does the ALJ explain the reason for this
inconsistency. An ALJ's conclusions drawn from the
evidence require enough explanation to permit meaningful
appellate review. See Thomas v. Berryhill, 916 F.3d
307, 312 (4th Cir. 2019). The ALJ's explanation does not
address this apparent inconsistency and is therefore
the full record, the Court is persuaded that the ALJ erred in
discounting certain medical opinions, particularly the
opinions of Dr. Woodbridge and Dr. Besen. Plaintiff was
prejudiced by the agency's failure to obtain treating
notes from Dr. Woodbridge and the ALJ failed to explain a
clear inconsistency in the way various opinions were weighed.
On the basis of these two defects, the Court finds that the
ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence.
Because the Court finds that remand is justified for these
errors alone, there is no need to consider plaintiffs