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Shrock v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

October 2, 2019

ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Ashley Shrock brought this action to obtain review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security[1] denying her claims for period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income. The Court has before it the certified administrative record and cross-motions for judgment.


         In March 2014, Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income benefits, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2011, later amended to September 1, 2016.[2] (Tr. 305-14, 349.) The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Id. at 196-205, 211-30.) Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 231-32.) After hearings on January 3, 2017[3] and May 31, 2017, the ALJ determined on September 15, 2017 that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 8-20.) The Appeals Council denied a request for review on September 14, 2018, making the ALJ's decision final for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. 1-7.)


         The scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is specific and narrow. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). Review is limited to determining if there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court does not re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). The issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff is disabled but whether the finding that she is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and based upon a correct application of the relevant law. Id.


         The ALJ followed the well-established sequential analysis to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920. See Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). At step one, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of September 1, 2016. (Tr. 14.) At the second step, the ALJ found the following severe impairments: Crohn's disease with intestinal stricture and related joint pain, treated with ileocecal resection; asthma; anxiety; and specific learning disability. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal in severity to one listed in, Appendix 1. (Id.) The ALJ next set forth Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) and determined:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work . . . except she can lift up to 10 pounds occasionally, stand and walk for about 2 hours, and sit for up to 6 hours in an 8 hour work day, with normal breaks; she must avoid concentrated exposure to environmental irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, and gases, as well a[s] poorly ventilated areas and chemicals; and she is limited to performing simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.

(Id. at 16.) At the fourth step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Id. at 18.) Last, at step five, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Id. at 19.) Consequently, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Id. at 20.)


         Plaintiff raises three issues on appeal. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's decision failed to make a function-by-function assessment of Plaintiff's mental functions before making an RFC determination. (Docket Entry 13 at 6-11.) Second, Plaintiff contends that, in finding that Plaintiff was moderately impaired in maintaining concentration, persistence, or pace (“CPP”), the ALJ failed to incorporate non-exertional limitations on the ability to stay on task. (Id. at 11-18.) Finally, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to follow the treating source rule for evaluating medical opinions and failed to properly weigh the medical opinion of Dr. Jonathan Hansen. (Id. at 18-23.) As set forth below, none of these contentions has merit.

         1. Function-by-Function Analysis

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ's “decision fails to make a function-by-function assessment of [her] functioning before finding residual functional capacity (RFC) . . . [and] [t]he decision's RFC finding also fails . . . to include the required ‘function-by-function' assessment” for Plaintiff's mental functioning.[4] (Docket Entry 13 at 7.) As discussed below, this argument is unpersuasive.

         RFC measures the most a claimant can do in a work setting despite the physical and mental limitations of her impairment and any related symptom (e.g., pain). See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1); see also Dunn v. Colvin, 607 Fed.Appx. 264, 272 (4th Cir. 2015) (unpublished) (claimant's RFC is “[a] medical assessment of what an individual can do in a work setting in spite of the functional limitations and environmental restrictions imposed by all of his or her medically determinable impairment(s).”) (internal citation omitted); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 562 (4th Cir. 2006). 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 v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 265 (4th Cir. 1981).

         Additionally, “Social Security Ruling 96-8p explains that 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).'” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016) (internal quotations omitted). An ALJ need not discuss every piece of evidence in making an RFC determination. See Reid v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec., 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014) (citing Dyer v. Barnhart, 395 F.3d 1206, 1211 (11th Cir. 2005)). However, the ALJ “must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to [the] conclusion.” Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000). As to the role of the function-by-function analysis, “[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. . . . Only after that may RFC be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1.

         In Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015), the Fourth Circuit clarified that there is no per se rule requiring remand if a function-by-function analysis is not performed. However, the Court held that “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, ” remand may be appropriate. Id. (internal quotation and citations omitted). The Fourth Circuit has held that “[a] necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling[, ]” which “should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal citations omitted).

         Here, the ALJ adequately considered the entire record and determined that Plaintiff possessed the RFC to perform a reduced range of sedentary work. (Tr. 16.) The Court concludes that the RFC is supported by substantial evidence and that the ALJ's narrative discussion of all the evidence in support of his findings in determining ...

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