Adams v. Colvin

Decision Date26 July 2016
Docket Number1:15CV00673
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of North Carolina
PartiesNICHEL S. ADAMS, Plaintiff, v. CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

Plaintiff, Nichel S. Adams, brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the "Act") to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI"). (Docket Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative record (Docket Entry 7 (cited herein as "Tr. ___")), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 9, 12; see also Docket Entry 10 (Plaintiff's Memorandum), Docket Entry 13 (Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.

I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset date of July 5, 2011. (Tr. 183-97.) Upon denial of those applications initially (Tr. 68-87, 112-16) and on reconsideration (Tr. 88-111, 117-25), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 126-27). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") attended the hearing. (Tr. 46-67.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 27-40.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-14), 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] meets the insured status requirements of the [] Act through December 31, 2016.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 5, 2011, the alleged onset date.
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, acute bronchitis, history of reflux esophagitis, and mood disorder.
. . .
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 medium work . . . . Due to her physical impairments, she is unable to work around concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights. Due to her respiratory impairment, she cannot work around concentrated exposure to environmental pollutants. Based on her alleged depression and complaints of pain, [Plaintiff] would be limited to unskilled work.. . .
6. [Plaintiff] is capable of performing past relevant work as in textiles. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.
. . .
In the alternative, considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [she] can also perform.
. . .
7. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the [] Act, from July 5, 2011, through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 32-40 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)

II. DISCUSSION

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 aresupported 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, 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 [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 andwas 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)).1 "To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration 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. (internal citations omitted).

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).2 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 179.3 Step four then requires the ALJ to assesswhether, based on that RFC, the claimant can perform past relevant work; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. 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 567.4

B. Assignments of Error

Plaintiff argues that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding of no disability on these grounds:

1) the Appeals Council erred by failing to vacate the ALJ's decision based on new evidence that "fill[ed] evidentiary gaps and contradict[ed] the findings of the ALJ" (Docket Entry 10 at 3);

2) the ALJ failed to perform "a complete function-by-function analysis and explanation of the nonexertional mental functions associated with [Plaintiff's] mental impairments" (id. at 6), and failed to account for Plaintiff's moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace ("CPP") (id. at 9-11); and

3) the ALJ failed to "weigh any of the medical opinions in the record []or explain how he reached his [RFC] conclusions" (id. at 11).

Defendant contends otherwise and seeks affirmance of the ALJ's decision. (Docket Entry 13 at 3-19.)

1. New Evidence

In Plaintiff's first issue on review, she asserts that the Appeals Council erred by failing to vacate the ALJ's decision based on new evidence which "fill[ed] evidentiary gaps and contradict[ed] the findings of the ALJ." (Docket Entry 10 at 3.) More specifically, Plaintiff submitted to the Appeals Council 1) a functional capacity evaluation ("FC...

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