Lucas v. Colvin
ORDER DENYING 22 Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and GRANTING 24 Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The decision of the Commissioner is affirmed. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 11/25/2014. (Fisher, M.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
CRYSTAL M. LUCAS,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the
pleadings. [DE 22, 24]. A hearing was held in Raleigh, North Carolina on November 24, 2014, at
which the Commissioner appeared via video feed. For the reasons detailed below, the decision of
the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of
the Commissioner's decision denying her claim for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act. Ms.
Lucas tiled her claim on April13, 2010, alleging an onset date of July 12,2007. [Tr. 109, 193201]. After initial denials, plaintiff appeared and testified before an Administrative Law Judge
("ALJ"), who denied her claim. The Appeals Council denied Ms. Lucas's request for review and
the AL.T's decision became the final decision ofthe Commissioner on September 16, 2013. [Tr.
33]. Ms. Lucas then timely sought review of the ALJ's decision in this Court.
When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the Court's
review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there
is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson
v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389,401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as "evidence which a
reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Shively v. Heckler,
739 F.2d 987,989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640,642 (4th Cir.
1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. Smith
v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).
In evaluating whether a claimant is disabled, an ALJ uses a multi-step process. First, a
claimant must not be able to work in a substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520.
Second, a claimant must have a severe impairment that significantly limits his or her physical or
mental ability to do basic work activities. Id To be found disabled, without considering a
claimant's age, education, and work experience, a claimant's impairment must be of sufficient
duration and must either meet or equal an impairment listed by the regulations. !d. In the
alternative, a claimant may be disabled if his or her impairment prevents the claimant from doing
past relevant work or if the impairment prevents the claimant from doing other work. !d. The
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987).
After finding that plaintiff met the insured status requirements and had not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, the ALJ determined that Ms. Lucas's
ankylosing spondylitis and hepatitis constituted severe impairments. [Tr. 23]. The ALJ then
found that Ms. Lucas did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
equaled a listing and had a residual functional capacity to perform light work. [Tr. 23-24]. The
ALJ then determined that plaintiff could return to her past relevant work as a deli clerk, and
accordingly, found that plaintiff was not disabled as of the date of the opinion. [Tr. 27].
Ms. Lucas first contends that the ALJ erred in failing to evaluate plaintiffs depression.
After reviewing the record, the Court finds that this contention is without merit. The ALJ
recounted plaintiffs treatment at Carolina Behavioral Center, a normal mental status
examination by treating physician Dr. Smith [Tr. 111], and treating physician Dr. Mitchell's
opinion that plaintiff was incapable of even "low stress" work [Tr. 112]. The ALJ ultimately
rejected Dr. Mitchell's opinion because it was inconsistent with the treatment records, lacked
supporting explanation, and was based on only three visits in a three-month period. [Tr. 112].
There were no other opinions of functional limitations resulting from plaintiffs depression.
Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ and the Appeals Council failed to properly evaluate the
medical opinions of Drs. Mitchell and J. Barber. The ALJ rejected Dr. Mitchell's 2011 opinion
because it was inconsistent with the treatment records, was conclusory, and was based on only
three visits and as many months. [Tr. 112-13]. The ALJ thoroughly discussed the treatment
records, which showed conservative treatment of plaintiffs ankylosing spondylitis and
significant improvement with pain medication. [Tr. 11 0-12]. The record demonstrates that
substantial evidence supports the ALJ' s decision to discount Dr. Mitchell's 2011 opinion. See,
e.g., Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9 1h Cir. 1989) (stating that an ALJ need not use
magic words when rejecting an opinion because the reviewing court is "not deprived of [its]
faculties for drawing . . . inferences from the ALJ' s opinion.").
With regard to Dr. Mitchell's 2012 opinion that was submitted to the Appeals Council,
the scope of judicial review here is limited to the Commissioner's final decision. 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). The Appeals Council is not required to articulate its reasoning when new evidence is
submitted and it denies review. Meyer v. Astrue, 662 F.3d 700, 704 (4th Cir. 2011). The evidence
incorporated into the record, however, is reviewable. See id. (quotation and citation omitted).
The later opinion remained inconsistent with treatment notes, and Dr. Mitchell stated plaintiff
had the same disabling functional limitations since July 2002, more than eight years before Dr.
Mitchell ever saw plaintiff. [Tr. 594]. The Court therefore finds that Dr. Mitchell's 2012 opinion
does not alter the factual findings underpinning the Commissioner's final decision, which is
supported by substantial evidence.
Dr. J. Barber opined that plaintiff had a "moderately decreased" tolerance "for walking
long distances," standing, sitting, lifting and carrying, and traveling. [Tr. 433]. The Court finds
that Dr. J. Barber's opinion supported the ALJ's finding that plaintiff could perform light work,
particularly given that Dr. Linster relied on Dr. Barber's findings in determining plaintiff could
do light work. [Tr. 66]. Moreover, even if the ALJ erred by failing to specify the weight
afforded Dr. J. Barber's opinion, such error would be harmless because it would not have altered
the ALJ's decision. See Mickles v. Shalala, 29 F.3d 918,921 (4th Cir. 1994) (finding error
harmless where the ALJ would have reached the same result absent the error).
The ALJ properly considered plaintiff's depression and the aforementioned physicians'
opinions, and substantial evidence clearly supports the Commissioner's decision that plaintiff is
not disabled within the meaning of the Act.
For the aforementioned reasons, plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 22]
is DENIED, and defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 24] is GRANTED. The
decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
SO ORDERED, this
q....J'""" day ofNovember, 2014.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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