Pridgen v. Colvin
ORDER denying 16 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and granting 18 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 8/18/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
JEANETTE L. PRIDGEN,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social Security,
This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the
pleadings, [D.E. 16, 18] filed in conjunction with accompanying memoranda in support [D.E. 17,
19]. A hearing on this matter was held in Raleigh, North Carolina on July 25, 2017. [D.E. 25].
For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs motion is DENIED and defendant's motion is
GRANTED. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
Plaintiff has past relevant work ("PRW") as a painter. [Tr. 87]. Plaintiff asserts that she
stopped working due to back problems, arthritis, asthma, and depression. [Tr. 125]. On the
alleged disability onset date of August 11, 2012, plaintiff was 33 years old. [D .E. 17] at 1.
On November 30, 2012, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits under
Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") and supplemental security income benefits under Title
XVI of the Act.
[Tr. 151-52]. Plaintiffs applications were denied both initially and upon
reconsideration. [Tr. 194-201, 202-11]. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing
on December 4, 2014, to consider plaintiffs claims de novo. [Tr. 94-124]. On February 6,
2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. [Tr. 78-88]. On March 3, 2015,
plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision. [Tr: 74]. On June 4, 2016, the Appeals
Council denied the request for review [Tr. 1-7], thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final
decision of the Commissioner. On June 27, 2016, plaintiff filed a complaint with the court
seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g),
1383(c)(3). [DE 5].
When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district
court's review is limited to a determination of whether the Commissioner employed the correct
legal standard and 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 "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 she 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:
an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or
mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only
unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and
work experience, engage in any other line of substantial gainful work ....
42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).
In making an initial disability determination, the ALJ engages in a sequential five-step
evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653. The burden of proof
is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the
fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's inquiry ceases if a
decision regarding claimant's disability can be made at any step of the process. 20 C.F.R.
When evaluating adults, the ALJ denies the claim at step one if the claimant is currently
engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step two, the ALJ denies
the claim if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments
significantly limiting her from performing basic work activities. Id. The ALJ cannot deny
benefits at step three; rather, the ALJ compares the claimant's impairment to those in the Listing
of Impairments. See id. (citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1). If the impairment is
listed in the Listing of Impairments, or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is
conclusively presumed without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience.
See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a
listed impairment, the ALJ then makes a residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding. 20 C.F.R.
The ALJ's RFC finding considers both severe and non-severe impairments, and any
combination thereof, and takes into account both objective medical evidence as well as
subjective complaints of pain and limitations.
20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e).
The ALJ further
considers the claimant's ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of
accomplishing work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(4). An RFC finding is meant to reflect the most
that a claimant can do, despite his or her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(l).
At step four, the ALJ considers a claimant's RFC to determine whether he or she can
perform past work despite the claimant's impairments.
20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If the
claimant cannot perform past work, the ALJ proceeds to step five of the analysis: establishing
whether the claimant-based on her RFC, age, education, and work experience-can make an
adjustment to perform other (substantial gainful) work. Id. When determining what occupations
are available that a claimant could perform, an ALJ relies on the Dictionary of Occupational
Titles (DOT) including its companion publication, Selected Characteristics of Occupations
Defined in the Revised Dictionary of Occupational Titles (SCO). SSR 00-4p. If the claimant
cannot perform other work, the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled.
20 C.F .R. §
As a general matter, an ALJ must consider the entire record when determining the
credibility of a claimant's statements. See SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *1. The regulations
provide a two-step process for evaluating whether a claimant is disabled by pain or other
symptoms alleged. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529; Craig v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 593-96 (4th Cir.1996).
First, the ALJ must determine whether there is objective medical evidence showing the existence
of a medical impairment that could be reasonably expected to produce the pain or other alleged
symptoms. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(b). Second, the ALJ evaluates the
and persistence of
the symptoms to determine how they limit the capacity for work. 20 C.F .R. § 404.1529(c). The
ALJ must also consider the consistency of the individual's statements, a longitudinal record of
treatment, and attempts to seek treatment for pain. See SSR 96-7p, 1996 WL 374186, at *7.
In the present case, the ALJ's February 6, 2015, decision followed the sequential fivestep evaluation process and found that steps one through four favored plaintiff. [Tr. 80-87]. The
ALJ determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perfom1 light work with the following restrictions:
she can only occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel and crawl; she must avoid
concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants, such as dust, fumes and smoke; she
is limited to performing simple, routine and repetitive tasks (i.e., she can apply
commonsense understanding to carry out instructions furnished in written, oral, or
diagrammatic form and deal with problems involving several concrete variables in
or from standardized situations); and she is unable to work at jobs requiring
complex decision making, constant change or dealing with crisis situations.
On the basis of the RFC provided by the ALJ, the vocational expert ("VE") testified at
the December 4, 2014, hearing that plaintiff could not perform her PRW as a painter. [Tr. 122].
However, the VE found that plaintiff could still perform other jobs including:
(1) merchandise marker (DOT# 209.587-034), 182,000 jobs nationally/4,800 jobs
in North Carolina; (2) sales attendant (DOT# 299.677-010), 120,000 jobs
nationally/3,600 jobs in North Carolina; (3) cashier (DOT # 211.462-010),
393,000 jobs nationally/12,000 jobs in North Carolina.
[Tr. 87-88]; [Tr. 122]. In reliance upon the VE's testimony, at step five the ALJ determined that
plaintiff was not disabled because she could adjust to other substantial gainful work. [Tr. 88].
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff had the RFC to perform
light work. See [D.E. 17] at 3. Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment is
not supported by substantial evidence because (1) she is unable to lift 20 pounds or stand/walk
for six hours in an eight-hour workday; (2) she has degenerative disc disease with stenosis of the
lumbar spine; 1 (3) she takes pain medications that cause drowsiness; (4) she has right median
neuropathy of her upper extremity and weakness in her left upper extremity,2 further impairing
her ability to perform lifting tasks required of light work. Id. at 13-14.
Spinal stenosis, also known as lumbar spinal stenosis, is the "narrowing of the vertebral canal, nerve root canals, or
intervertebral foramina of the lumbar spine caused by encroachment of bone upon the space; symptoms are caused
by compression of the cauda equina and include pain, paresthesias, and neurologic claudication." DORLAND'S
ILLUSTRATED MEDICAL DICTIONARY 1770 (32d ed. 2012) ("DORLANDS"). Neurologic claudication is limping or
lameness "accompanied by pain and paresthesias in the back, buttocks, and lower limbs, relieved by stooping or
sitting." Id. at 369. Paresthesia is "an abnormal touch sensation, such as burning, prickling, or formication, often in
the absence of an external stimulus." Id. at 1383. Formication is "a tactile hallucination in which there is a
sensation of tiny insects crawling over the skin. Id. at 734.
Neuropathy is "a functional disturbance or pathological change in the peripheral nervous system." DORLANDS at
1268. Median neuropathy is "neuropathy due to a lesion of the median nerve or one of its branches." Id. at 1269
Contrary to plaintiffs first argument, the ALJ carefully considered the entire record and
discussed the existence and consequences of plaintiffs disabilities, to include lumbar and
cervical degenerative disc disease, dysthymic disorder, anxiety disorder, and asthma. See [Tr.
Although the ALJ did not discuss plaintiffs present assertions regarding lumbar
stenosis and median neuropathy explicitly, the ALJ did address, inter alia, (1) plaintiffs
symptom of numbne.ss in her arms [Tr. 83]; (2) medical reports from November 2012, March
2013, and July 2014 finding that plaintiff retained full muscle strength in her extremities despite
decreased sensation [Tr. 84-85]; (3) a May 2013 MRI that "showed minimal degenerative
changes and no significant foraminal compromise" [Tr. 85]; and (4) an October 2014 x-ray of
her lumbar spine showing only mild disc space narrowing at L5-Sl [Tr. 85]. See also [Tr. 583]
(noting, in a July 2013 medical examination report, that plaintiffs May 2013 MRI found "no
signs of cord compression or nerve root compression for the most part," whereas a previous
MRI-date unspecified, but presumably from October 2012, see [Tr. 84]-showed "spondylosis
and stenosis at L4-5 and L5-Sl, disc herniation at LS-SI."). Thus, the court finds that the ALJ
considered plaintiffs alleged symptoms due to lumbar steno sis and median neuropathy and, to
the extent that the ALJ erred in failing to discuss these conditions explicitly, plaintiff fails to
demonstrate that any such error was harmful. See Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009)
("[T]he burden of showing that an error is harmful normally falls upon the party attacking the
agency's determination."); see also Patterson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 846 F.3d 656, 658
(4th Cir. 2017) (citing Sanders, 556 U.S. at 407, for the proposition that the "general case law
governing application of the harmless-error standard" applies equally to administrative cases);
(cross-referencing anterior interosseous syndrome and pronator teres syndrome). The symptoms of anterior
interosseous syndrome include "pain in the proximal forearm and weakness of the muscles innervated by the nerve."
Id. at 1821. Pronator teres syndrome causes "pain in the forearm and weakness or sensory deficits in the radial
aspect of the hand." Id at 1844.
Garner v. Astrue, 436 F. App'x 224, 226 (4th Cir. 2011) (applying, for the first time, the
harmless-error standard discussed in Sanders in the context of Social Security appeals to the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ("Fourth Circuit")).
Regarding the ALJ' s RFC decision, as discussed above, the ALJ found that the
cumulative effects of plaintiffs documented impairments would preclude her from everything
but light work but were not totally disabling. [Tr. 86]. The ALJ found only mild restriction in
plaintiffs activities of daily living; mild difficulties in social functioning; and moderate
difficulties with concentration, persistence, or pace. [Tr. 81]. There is no discrepancy between
the limitations in the ALJ's RFC finding and the requirements of the jobs that the ALJ found,
based on the VE's testimony, that plaintiff could perform. Succinctly stated, the ALJ's RFC
finding is supported by substantial evidence in the record.
See Perales, 402 U.S. at 401;
Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.
Plaintiffs second argument is that the ALJ erred in rendering a negative credibility
determination. [D .E. 17] at 3. Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ misapplied the legal
standard established in Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 563-64 (4th Cir. 2006), when he
improperly dismissed her subjective complaints and supporting objective medical evidence
demonstrating that pain prevented her from completing a full workday. See [D.E. 17] at 15-16.
Here, as discussed above, the ALJ found objective medical evidence that plaintiff suffers
from lumbar and cervical degenerative disc disease, dysthymic disorder, anxiety disorder, and
asthma. See [Tr. 82-86]. Nevertheless, the ALJ found that plaintiff's statements regarding the
intensity, persistence, and limiting effects due to her medically discemable impairments were not
entirely credible. [Tr. 84]. In support of this finding, the ALJ noted a variety of conflicts
between plaintiff's statements and the record medical evidence. For example, as to plaintiff's
asserted difficulty walking and lifting, the ALJ noted that, according to a July 2014 hospital
report, plaintiff "was able to walk and was noted to walk 'briskly' carrying several food bags
during her visit." [Tr. 85] (quoting Tr. 636). Further, the ALJ noted that, during October 2014
emergency room visits due to low back pain and intermittent paresthesia in her left leg, plaintiff
demonstrated a normal range of motion and was noted to walk without difficulty.
(referencing Tr. 680, 686). As to her ability to sit or stand, the ALJ cited a March 2013 physical
examination report wherein plaintiff "estimated that she could stand up to 30 minutes at a time
and sit for up to 40 minutes at a time, walk 114 of a mile, and carry up to 10 pounds." Id.
(referencing Tr. 365). As to her complaints that her pain medication caused incapacitating side
effects, the ALJ cited a March 2014 orthopedic examination follow-up where plaintiff
disclaimed any adverse side effects due to her medications. Id. (referencing Tr. 550).
Although plaintiff asserts that the ALJ misapplied the legal standard announced in Hines,
[D.E. 17] at 15-16, the court finds no such error because Hines is substantially distinguishable
from the present matter. In Hines, a claimant sought disability benefits for sickle cell anemia
because the condition caused him to experience fatigue, weakness, and both chronic and acute
pain. Hines, 453 F.3d at 562-63. The ALJ had denied benefits largely because there was no
objective evidence that supported the claimant's subjective claims of disabling pain. Id at 561.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed this court's reversal of the ALJ's finding below because, due to the
unique characteristics of sickle cell anemia-a disease that rarely produces objective medical
evidence of pain-the claimant was entitled to rely solely upon subjective evidence, without
supporting objective evidence, to prove that his condition precluded him from accomplishing an
eight-hour workday. Id. at 561-67. Nevertheless, the Fourth Circuit noted:
While objective evidence is not mandatory at the second step of the test [as
described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1529(c)], "[t]his is not to say, however, that
objective medical evidence and other objective evidence are not crucial to
evaluating the intensity and persistence of a claimant's pain and the extent to
which it impairs her ability to work. They most certainly are. Although a
claimant's allegations about her pain may not be discredited solely because they
are not substantiated by objective evidence of the pain itself or its severity, they
need not be accepted to the extent they are inconsistent with the available
evidence, including objective evidence of the underlying impairment, and the
extent to which that impairment can reasonably be expected to cause the pain the
claimant alleges she suffers."
Id. at 565 n.3 (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 595).
Unlike the claimant in Hines, plaintiff in this case has not asserted that she suffers from a
disease that rarely produces objective medical evidence. Cf. Hines, 453 F.3d at 561. Moreover,
as discussed above, here the ALJ found that plaintiff's complaints lacked credibility, not solely
because these complaints were subjective or unsupported by objective evidence, but rather
because these complaints were inconsistent with record evidence. The court finds that the ALJ' s
evaluation is explicitly permitted by, and consistent with, the Fourth Circuit's decisions in Hines
and Craig. See also Morris v. Astrue, No. 7:08CV630, 2010 WL 838862, at *3 (W.D.Va. Mar.
5, 2010) (noting that an ALJ is not required "to defer blindly to [a claimant's] testimony about
the level of impairment caused by his pain once [the claimant] has established objective evidence
of an underlying medical impairment").
In sum, the court finds that the Commissioner's final decision-including the ALJ's RFC
finding and credibility determination-is supported by substantial evidence and applied the
correct legal standard. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Perales, 402 U.S. at 401; Johnson, 434 F.3d at
For the foregoing reasons, defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings
GRANTED and plaintiffs motion is DENIED.
The decision of the Commissioner
AFFIRMED. The clerk is DIRECTED to close the file.
This /£day of August, 2017.
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