United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICK AULD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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
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.
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,
. . .
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
(Tr. 13-25 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations
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.
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).
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).
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)). “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
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). 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).
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. 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.
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
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)).
contends otherwise and seeks affirmance of the ALJ's
decision. (Docket Entry 17 at 3-22.)
Medical Opinion Evidence
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.
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),
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.)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.)
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.) 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.”
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