Bullock v. Colvin
ORDER granting 15 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and denying 17 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 6/5/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
MICHAEL BULLOCK as surviving spouse )
of PATRICIA BULLOCK,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner ofSocial Security,
This cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. A
hearing was held on these matters before the undersigned on May 18, 2017, at Edenton, North
Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed.
Patricia Bullock 1 brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review
of the final decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for disability and disability insurance
benefits (DIB) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Claimant protectively filed for DIB
on August 28, 2012, alleging disability since November 1, 2008. 2 After initial denials, a hearing
was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who considered the claim de novo. The ALJ
issued an unfavorable ruling, and the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the
Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied claimant's request for review. Claimant then
timely sought review of the Commissioner's decision in this Court. Patricia Bullock's surviving
As Michael Bullock has been substituted as plaintiff in this matter, the Court refers to Patricia
Bullock as claimant.
The alleged onset date was later amended to February 7, 2011.
spouse, Michael Bullock, was substituted as plaintiff in this matter pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P.
25(a) following Patricia Bullock's death on September 21, 2016.
Under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and 1383(c)(3), this Court's review of
the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a whole, is
supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the correct legal
standard. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is "such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v.
Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and citation omitted).
An individual is considered disabled if he is unable "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 [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that an
individual "shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment
or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot,
considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other line of substantial gainful
work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
Regulations issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential evaluation
process to be followed in a disability case. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). The
claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five. See Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If a decision
regarding disability can be made at any step of the process the inquiry ceases. See 20 C.F.R. §§
At step one, if the Social Security Administration determines that the claimant is currently
engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. If not, then step two asks whether the
claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. If the claimant has a severe
impairment, it is compared at step three to those in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") in 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals a Listing,
disability is conclusively presumed. If not, at step four, the claimant's residual functional capacity
(RFC) is assessed to determine if the claimant can perform his past relevant work. If so, the claim
If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the
Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant, based on his age, education, work experience,
and RFC, can perform other substantial gainful work. If the claimant cannot perform other work,
then he is found to be disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
At step one, the ALJ determined that claimant met the insured status requirements and had
not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date. Claimant's
degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, obesity, _recurrent arrhythmias, hyperlipidemia,
depressive disorder, and anxiety disorder were considered severe impairmynts at step two but were
not found alone or in combination to meet or equal a Listing at step three. The ALJ concluded that
claimant had the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work with both exertional and
nonexertional limitations. The ALJ found that claimant could lift and carry up to twenty pounds
occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand and/or walk for six hours of an eight-hour day; and
sit six hours of an eight-hour day. The ALJ found that claimant could not perform her past relevant
work but that, considering claimant's age, education, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in
significant numbers in the national economy which claimant could perform, including
merchandise marker, mail clerk, and garment inspector. Thus, the ALJ determined that claimant
was not disabled from February 7, 2011, through December 22, 2014, the date of his decision.
The ALJ's decision in this instance is not supported by substantial evidence'. An ALJ
makes an RFC assessment based on all of the relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a). An RFC should reflect the most that a claimant can do, despite the claimant's
limitations. Id. An RFC finding s,hould also reflect the claimant's ability to perform sustained
work-related activities in a work setting on regular and continuing basis, meaning eight-hours per
day, five days per week. SSR 96-8p; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 562 (4th Cir. 2006).
The ALJ improperly evaluated the effects of claimant's pain on her ability to perform work
on a regular and continuing basis. Claimant underwent three cervical and one lumbar spinal
surgeries, with three of those surgeries occurring in a two-year period beginning in 2011. Although
the record evidence supports a conclusion that claimant improved following her first surgery in
2006, the same revel of improvement is not documented following her subsequent surgeries. After
her third cervical surgery and prior to her lumbar surgery, claimant continued to experience
numbness and tingling in her arms and little or no reduction in pain. Tr. 527. Following her
lumbar surgery, claimant experienced improvement in her radicular symptoms but no longer-term
pain relief. Tr. 450, 642, 726. In September 2013, claimant's pain was noted to increase with
activity, and pain provoking activities were found to be bending, sitting, standing, and lifting. Tr.
551. Her range of motion and extremity strength was reduced, and her pain symptoms were noted
to be _consistent with degeneration of her spine. Tr. 552. In November 2013, claimant was
diagnosed with chfonic pain syndrome. Tr. 661. In April 2014, claimant was diagnosed with"
spinal stenosis, lumbar region, with neurogenic claudication." Tr. 760. Neurogenic claudication
associated with spinal stenosis can encompass "a worsening of lower extremity pain with long
periods of standing and walking." Clemons v. Astrue, No. CIV.A. 2:08-00098, 2009 WL 6337986,
at *6 (M.D. Tenn. July 21, 2009), report and recommendation adopted, No. CIV. 2:08-00098,
2010 WL 1406840 (M.D. Tenn. Apr. 6, 2010).
The ALJ found that claimant's statements regarding the intensity, persistence, and limiting
effects of her symptoms were not entirely credible. Specifically as to her pain related to her spine
and spinal surgeries, the ALJ found that claimant was repeatedly in no acute distress on exam, that
she was usually neurovascularly intact and had normal strength and reflexes, and that she usually
had negative straight leg testing, and thus any residual pain plaintiff might have from her surgeries
and degenerative disc disease would not prevent her from working. Tr. 73-74. While this Court
normally affords the ALJ's credibility determination great weight, Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d
987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984), it is simply not born out by the record here. While the ALJ has relied on
intermittent evidence in the record which might support a conclusion that claimant's pain
complaints are not credible, consideration of the entire record reveals significant objective findings
of conditions which would cause pain and consistent complaints of pain by claimant to different
providers over the years. Indeed, "[b ]ecause pain is not readily susceptible of objective proof ...
the absence of objective medical evidence of the intensity, severity, degree or functional effect of
pain is not determinative." Hines, 453 F.3d at 564-65 (emphasis in original) (citation omitted).
Even affording claimant's statements regarding her limitations some weight results in a
finding that she could not perform work on a regular and continuing basis. While claimant testified
that she could not walk for more than ten minutes at a time, the vocational expert testified that if
claimant could not stand or walk at least two hours in an eight-hour day a finding of disabled would
be required. Tr. 113. Such limitation is fully supported by the record and should be found to apply
Reversal for Award of Benefits
The decision of whether to reverse and remand for benefits or reverse and remand for a
new hearing is one that "lies within the sound discretion of the district court." Edwards v.
Bowen, 672 F. Supp. 230, 237 (E.D.N.C. 1987); see also Evans v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 1012, 1015
(4th Cir. 1984). When "[o]n the state of the record, [plaintiff's] entitlement to benefits is wholly
established," reversal for award of benefits rather than remand is appropriate. Crider v. Harris,
624 F.2d 15, 17 (4th·Cir. 1980). The Fourth Circuit has held that it is appropriate for a federal
court to "reverse without remanding where the record does not contain substantial evidence to
support a decision denying coverage under the correct legal standard and when reopening the
record for more evidence would serve no purpose." Breeden v. Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002,
1012 (4th Cir. 1974). Remand, rather than reversal, is required when the ALJ fails to explain his
reasoning and there is ambivalence in the medical record, precluding a court from "meaningful
review." Radfordv. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 296 (4th Cir. 2013).
The ALJ has explained his reasoning and there is no ambivalence in the medical record
which would preclude this Court from review. The Court in its discretion finds that reversal for
an award of benefits rather than remand is appropriate in this instance.
For the foregoing reasons, plaintiff's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 15] is
GRANTED and defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 17] is DENIED. The
decision of the ALJ is REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED to the Commissioner for an
award of benefits.
SO ORDERED, this
U--- day of June, 2017.
UNITED STATES DISTRIJUDGE
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