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Love v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

October 9, 2019

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



         Plaintiff, Crystal Lynn Love, brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Docket Entry 2.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative record (Docket Entries 8-10 (cited herein as “Tr. ”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 14, 16; see also Docket Entry 15 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 17 (Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of February 12, 2014. (Tr. 2088-95.) Upon denial of those applications initially (Tr. 1948-69, 2004-13) and on reconsideration (Tr. 1970-2003, 2016-21), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 2022). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 1896-1947.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 8-25.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-7, 2086-87, 2167-69), thereby making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] met the insured status requirements of the [] Act through September 30, 2017.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 12, 2014, the alleged onset date.
. . .
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: asthma; chronic pain (multiple areas/joints); fibromyalgia; degenerative disc disease; left lower extremity impairment; knee impairment (left knee meniscal tear, sprain); migraines; obesity; anxiety; depression.
. . .
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
. . .
5. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work . . . except she can occasionally push-pull (including foot control operations) with the left lower extremity. She is limited to only occasional climbing ramp/stairs, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, crawling; no climbing ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She requires the flexibility to use [a] cane for all ambulation. She is limited to only occasional exposure to cold [and] heat extremes, wetness, humidity, vibration, and irritants (such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poorly ventilated areas). She can have no exposure to workplace hazards (including operational control of moving machinery as well as exposure to unprotected heights and hazardous machinery). She is further limited to simple, routine tasks in entry-level unskilled work, in a low stress job (defined as only occasional, independent decisionmaking and only occasional changes in the work setting).
. . .
6. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work.
. . .
10. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she] can perform.
. . .
11. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the [] Act, from February 12, 2014, through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 13-25 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)


         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 [the Court's] review of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the extremely limited review standard.

         A. Standard of Review

          “[C]ourts are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, the 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.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal brackets and quotation marks 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. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (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) (brackets and internal 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 [C]ourt should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].” 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 [Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before [the 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 Cir. 1996).

         When confronting that issue, the Court must take note that “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, 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)).[2] “To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration [(‘SSA')] has . . . detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, and work experience in addition to [the claimant's] medical condition.” Id. “These regulations establish a ‘sequential evaluation process' to determine whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.

         This sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity,' i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a ‘severe' impairment that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings' of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past work or (5) any other work.” Albright v. Commissioner of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999).[3] A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in the SEP forecloses an award 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 each of the first three steps, “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, 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. See id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, whereupon 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 Commissioner 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.[5]

         B. Assignments of Error

          According to Plaintiff, the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding of no disability on these grounds:

1) “[t]he ALJ's treatment of the medical opinion evidence is erroneous” (Docket Entry 15 at 5 (bold font omitted));
2) “[t]he ALJ's RFC is not supported by substantial evidence because he failed to account for the total limiting effects of all [Plaintiff's] medically determinable impairments and the symptoms she experiences as a result of these impairments and failed to properly explain how he resolved the evidence with his conclusions regarding [Plaintiff's] RFC” (id. at 11 (bold font and single-spacing omitted)); and
3) “[r]emand is required because at the time [the ALJ's] decision was issued, [his] appointment did not comply with the Appointments Clause” (id. at 17 (bold font and single-spacing omitted)).

         Defendant contends otherwise and seeks affirmance of the ALJ's decision. (Docket Entry 17 at 3-22.)

         1. Medical Opinion Evidence

         Plaintiff's first assignment of error asserts that the ALJ erred by “fail[ing] to give adequate reasons to support his decision that [treating physician Dr. Thomas E.] Parrish's medical opinions were only entitled to little weight” (Docket Entry 15 at 5 (underscoring and single-spacing omitted) (citing Tr. 21-22)), and by “fail[ing] to address or assign any weight to [Physician Assistant John J.] Robbins's medical opinion” (id. at 11 (referencing Tr. 3577)). These contentions fail to warrant relief.

         a. Dr. Parrish

         The treating source rule generally requires an ALJ to give controlling weight to the opinion of a treating source regarding the nature and severity of a claimant's impairment. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2) (“[T]reating sources . . . provide a detailed, longitudinal picture of [a claimant's] medical impairment(s) and may bring a unique perspective to the medical evidence that cannot be obtained from the objective medical findings alone or from reports of individual examinations, such as consultative examinations or brief hospitalizations.”). The rule also recognizes, however, that not all treating sources or treating source opinions merit the same deference. The nature and extent of each treatment relationship appreciably tempers the weight an ALJ affords an opinion. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)(ii), 416.927(c)(2)(ii). Moreover, as subsections (2) through (4) of the rule detail, a treating source's opinion, like all medical opinions, deserves deference only if well-supported by medical signs and laboratory findings and consistent with the other substantial evidence of record. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)-(4), 416.927(c)(2)-(4). “[I]f a physician's opinion is not supported by clinical evidence or if it is inconsistent with other substantial evidence, it should be accorded significantly less weight.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 590 (emphasis added). Finally, statements from medical sources (and even treating sources) that a claimant qualifies as disabled or cannot work do not constitute “medical opinions as described in [§§ 404.1527(a)(1), 416.927(a)(1)], but are, instead, opinions on issues reserved for the Commissioner” and do not warrant controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d).[6]

         Upon Plaintiff's request, Dr. Parrish completed four preprinted disability forms supplied by Plaintiff's then-attorney on June 22, 2016. (See Tr. 2623-27, 2632-33, 3302, 3309, 3327.)[7]On a form entitled “Medical Opinion Re: Ability to Do Work-Related Activities (Physical), ” Dr. Parrish opined that, due to “fibromyalgia” and “lumbar disc disease, ” Plaintiff could lift and carry less than 10 pounds occasionally and less than five pounds frequently, stand and walk for a total of less than two hours, and sit for a total of about two hours in an eight-hour workday. (Tr. 2623.) Dr. Parrish further indicated that Plaintiff would need to change positions every 15 minutes and would need to lie down every one to two hours during the workday. (Id.) According to Dr. Parrish, Plaintiff's impairments precluded her from twisting, stooping, crouching, and climbing stairs/ladders and limited her ability to reach, finger, push/pull, and handle. (See Tr. 2624.) Dr. Parrish additionally included environmental restrictions, noted that Plaintiff's “[left] lower extremity [wa]s not dependable to safely ambulate without [a] cane, ” and predicted that Plaintiff's impairments would cause her to miss work “[m]ore than four days per month.” (Id.) On another form requesting Dr. Parrish's opinion as to the exertional level of work Plaintiff remained capable of performing, Dr. Parrish opined that Petitioner “[wa]s unable to work.” (Tr. 2625.)

         Lastly, on a “Fibromyalgia Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire, ” Dr. Parrish opined that Plaintiff met “the American College of Rheumatology criteria for fibromyalgia” and that her prognosis remained “[g]uarded.” (Tr. 2632.)[8] Dr. Parrish checked boxes that listed Plaintiff's fibromyalgia symptoms as “[m]ultiple tender points, ” “[n]onrestorative sleep, ” “[c]hronic fatigue, ” “[m]orning stiffness, ” “[m]uscle weakness, ” “[s]ubjective swelling, ” “Irritable Bowel Syndrome, ” “[f]requent, severe headaches, ” “Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ), ” “[n]umbness and tingling, ” “Raynaud's Phenomenon, ” “[d]ysmenorrhea, ” “[b]reathlessness, ” “[a]nxiety, ” “[p]anic attacks, ” and “[d]epression.” (Id.) In addition, Dr. Parrish opined that Plaintiff experienced “constant” pain in her spine, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, hips, knees, ankles, and feet that she rated at six to eight (and occasionally ten) out of ten on the pain scale, and that Plaintiff's complaints did not amount to malingering. (Tr. 2633.) Dr. Parrish concluded that Plaintiff's pain “[c]onstantly” interfered with the “attention and concentration needed to perform even simple work tasks, ” but that Plaintiff remained capable of performing “low stress jobs.” (Id.)

         The ALJ evaluated and weighed Dr. Parrish's opinions as follows:

[I]n June 2016, [Plaintiff's] doctor completed a medical source statement, indicating [Plaintiff] could stand/walk less than [two] hours and sit about [two] hours in an [eight]-hour day. He said [Plaintiff] would have to change positions every 15 minutes and would need to lie down for [two] hours during the day. He said [Plaintiff] could never twist, stoop, crouch, or climb. He said [Plaintiff] would miss more than four days of work per month. [He] said [Plaintiff] was unable to work. These opinions are given little weight. [Dr. Parrish] merely checked off boxes on a form and did not provide an explanation for the limitations given. The determination that a claimant is disabled is an issue[] reserved to the Commissioner. It appears the limitations were adopted from [Plaintiff's] subjective allegations rather than based on the objective assessment of the treatment provider. Most importantly, the limitations are inconsistent with the rest of the record and are overly restrictive in light of the objective medical evidence.
. . .
[Dr. Parrish] said that pain would constantly interfere with attention and concentration and that [Plaintiff] was capable of ...

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