Bridgers v. Berryhill
MEMORANDUM & ORDER denying 20 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, granting 24 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, and affirming the Commissioner's determination. Signed by Magistrate Judge Robert T. Numbers, II on 1/10/2018. (Herrmann, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
Robert Lee Bridgers,
Memorandum & Order
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting
Commissioner of Social Security, 1
Plaintiff Robert Lee Bridgers instituted this action on February 14, 2017, to challenge the
denial of his application for social security income. Bridgers claims that the Administrative Law
Judge (“ALJ”) Mason Hogan erred in (1) evaluating the medical opinion evidence, (2) failing to
adopt the visual limitations set forth by one of Bridgers’s treating providers, and (3) identifying
other jobs that Bridgers could perform. Both Bridgers and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill, the
Acting Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings
in their favor. D.E. 20, 24.
After reviewing the parties’ arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Hogan reached
the appropriate decision. ALJ Hogan properly considered the medical opinion evidence, including
the visual limitations assessed by Dr. Edwin Swann. Additionally, ALJ Hogan did not err in relying
on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) to identify, at step five, other work suitable for
Berryhill replaced Carolyn Colvin as the Acting Commissioner of Social Security on January 20,
Bridgers. Therefore, the court denies Bridgers’s motion, grants Berryhill’s motion, and affirms the
Commissioner’s decision. 2
On November 27, 2012, Bridgers protectively filed an application for disability benefits
alleging a disability that began on October 19, 2012. After his claim was denied at the initial level
and upon reconsideration, Bridgers appeared before ALJ Hogan for a hearing to determine whether
he was entitled to benefits. ALJ Hogan determined Bridgers was not entitled to benefits because
he was not disabled. Tr. at 9–25.
ALJ Hogan found that Bridgers had several severe impairments: degenerative joint disease
of the lumbar spine with SI joint dysfunction, myofascial pain syndrome, moderate carpal tunnel
syndrome, history of left rotator cuff tear, status post surgical repair, possible osteoarthritis of the
knees, glaucoma, and afferent pupillary defect. Tr. at 11. ALJ Hogan found that Bridgers’s
impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 12.
ALJ Hogan then determined that Bridgers had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to
perform a range of light work with additional limitations. Tr. at 13. He can never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds but he can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. Id. Bridgers can occasionally
balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl and occasionally reach with his dominant upper extremity.
Id. He can also frequently handle and finger with the bilateral upper extremities. Id.
Bridgers must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dust, gases, poor ventilation
and hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. Id. Finally, Bridgers cannot do
any work that requires depth perception. Id.
The parties have consented to jurisdiction by a United States Magistrate Judge. 28 U.S.C. §
636(c). 28 U.S.C. § 636(b). D.E. 16.
ALJ Hogan concluded that Bridgers was incapable of performing his past relevant work as
an apartment maintenance worker or industrial truck driver. Tr. at 23. But ALJ Hogan determined
that, considering Bridgers’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that
existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Bridgers was capable of performing.
Id. These include: cashier, furniture rental consultant, and parking lot attendant. Tr. at 23–24. Thus,
ALJ Hogan found that Bridgers was not disabled. Tr. at 25.
After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Bridgers commenced this
action in February 2017. D.E. 5.
Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner’s Final Decision
When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district
court’s review is limited to determining 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)). The
court must affirm the Commissioner’s decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v.
Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).
Standard for Evaluating Disability
In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The ALJ must consider
the factors in order. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim
is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or
combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work
activities. At step three, the claimant’s impairment is compared to those in the Listing of
Impairments. See 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.
However, if the claimant’s impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ
assesses the claimant’s RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work
despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on
to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can
perform other substantial gainful work. 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).
Bridgers has a history of back pain, knee pain, carpal tunnel, and diminished vision. In
August 2012, Robert Lawrence, PA, examined Bridgers. Tr. at 283. He refilled prescriptions
related to Bridgers’s back pain. Id. Four months later, Lawrence provided follow-up care for
Bridgers’s HIV. Tr. at 277–78. Treatment notes reflect that Bridgers had vision loss in his right
eye due to untreated glaucoma. Tr. at 278–79.
Around this same time, Bridgers sought treatment with Dr. Holly Warren for his chronic
back pain. Tr. at 365. She prescribed medication and recommended he pursue care with a pain
management clinic. Id. The following month, Dr. Mackenzie Smith saw Bridgers for his back pain.
Tr. at 368–70. She, too, prescribed medication and suggested he pursue pain management
In January 2013, Dr. Smith issued a Medical Source Statement opining that Bridgers’s
symptoms were severe enough to interfere with the attention and concentration required to perform
simple tasks. Tr. at 328–29. Dr. Smith also assessed the following limitations: Bridgers could sit
for ten minutes at a time for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; he could stand or walk for
ten minutes at a time for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; he is unable to walk a city
block without rest without experiencing pain; he would require unscheduled breaks every 15–30
minutes; he could occasionally lift or carry up to ten pounds and could not lift or carry more than
20 pounds; and he would be absent from work four or more times per month due to his
Later that month, Dr. Yen Nguyen examined Bridgers’s vision due to his complaints of
itchiness, dryness, and excessive watering in the left eye. Tr. at 349–50. Dr. Nguyen assessed a
pupillary defect in the right eye and glaucoma in the left eye, and prescribed eye drops for both
conditions. Id. At a follow-up visit the following month, Dr. Nguyen assessed the same conditions
and treatment. Tr. at 354–55. By March, Dr. Nguyen referred Bridgers to a specialist after noticing
a decline in his vision. Tr. at 358.
From March through May, Bridgers sought follow-up care from Dr. Smith’s office for his
back pain. Tr. at 372–76. Providers prescribed medications and administered injections. Id. A May
2013 examination found an abnormal gait and low back tenderness. Tr. at 377.
A June 2013 MRI of Bridgers’s lumbar spine showed moderate lumbar spondylosis from
L3-L4 through L5-S1 with narrowing of the central canal and subarticular recess, and disc material
contacting the nerve roots at L3 and L4. Tr. at 395–96. It also showed severe right facet arthropathy
and moderate left facet arthropathy at L5-S1 with a diffuse bulge causing mild central canal and
neural foraminal narrowing. Id.
X-rays of the lumbar spine revealed moderate multilevel
degenerative changes of the lumbar spine. Tr. at 399.
Dr. E.C. Land performed a consultative examination later that month. Tr. at 391–93. His
examination noted a dense cataract in the right eye and the formation of one in the left eye. Tr. at
392. Bridgers also displayed a decreased range of motion in the cervical spine with tenderness
over his lumbar region and a limited ability to bend and squat. Id. His gait was stiff but he was
able to ambulate at times without a cane. Id. Dr. Land assessed low back pain secondary to
degenerative arthritis and glaucoma, with loss of vision in the right eye. Tr. at 393. He opined that
Bridgers would have mild limitations in squatting, lifting, and bending, as well as mild restrictions
in the repetitive use of his left shoulder due to a prior surgery. Id.
Three months later, Bridgers saw Dr. William Doss 3 for his back pain. Tr. at 401. Dr.
Doss’s examination found tenderness at the left SI joint and positive Gaenslen, FABER, and Gillett
tests on the left side. Tr. at 403. Dr. Doss prescribed medication and referred Bridgers for an SI
joint injection and physical therapy. Id.
Bridgers began physical therapy later that month. Tr. at 531–35. An examination revealed
stiff posture, antalgic gait, tender paraspinal muscles, and painful range of motion. Id. Bridgers
received gait training with an assistive device. Tr. at 535.
In October, Bridgers’s eyesight was reevaluated at East Carolina Center for Eyesight. Tr.
at 426. He reported a lack of right eye vision for one year and left eye strain. Id. Dr. Charles Titone
opined that cataract surgery may improve Bridgers’s vision. Tr. at 430. A follow-up visit later that
month yielded the same assessment and recommendation. Tr. at 433.
ALJ Hogan’s decision incorrectly refers to this provider as Dr. Dossa. Tr. at 21.
During this time, Bridgers continued to receive physical therapy for back and neck pain.
Tr. at 520, 526. He demonstrated tenderness and pain with range of motion in both his back and
neck. Tr. at 521–22, 527. Bridgers gait pattern showed impairment. Tr. at 522. The following
month, Bridgers rated his pain as an eight on a scale of one to ten. Tr. at 667. He also reported
minimal relief from the SI injection, and an examination again found tenderness and inflammation
in his back. Tr. at 667–68, 673–74. His gait was noted to have improved with a lengthened stride.
Tr. at 667, 673.
In December 2013, Bridgers sought follow-up care from Dr. Doss for his back pain. Tr. at
436. An examination revealed paraspinal tenderness and Dr. Doss assessed myofascial syndrome
with SI joint dysfunction. Tr. at 438. He administered an injection and prescribed medications to
Bridgers. Tr. at 438–39.
Three months later, Dr. Daniel Moore treated Bridgers for his complaints of daily back and
hand pain. Tr. at 448. Dr. Moore noted tenderness and spasms, assessed SI joint pain, and
prescribed medications. Tr. at 449. Although injection treatment was recommended, Bridgers
declined for financial reasons. Id. Bridgers returned to Dr. Doss in April reporting hand pain that
woke him from sleep. Tr. at 442–44. Electrodiagnostic testing revealed compression neuropathy
of bilateral median nerves consistent with moderate carpal tunnel syndrome. Tr. at 442, 447.
Returning to Dr. Doss in May, Bridgers complained of back pain, wrist pain, and
numbness. Tr. at 614–15. An examination showed a positive point test at the left SI joint and a
positive carpal tunnel test. Tr. at 616. Dr. Doss prescribed medication and administered an
injection to Bridgers’s left hand. Tr. at 614, 617.
Bridgers next sought treatment from Dr. Doss for his hand and back pain in September
2014. Tr. at 465. Bridgers reported increased pain and difficulty sleeping. Id. Dr. Doss again
prescribed medication and referred Bridgers to a neurosurgeon for right carpal tunnel release. Tr.
at 465–66. Bridgers returned to Dr. Doss three months later, again reporting hand and back pain.
Tr. at 461. Dr. Doss assessed right carpal tunnel syndrome and left SI joint dysfunction, for which
he prescribed medication. Id.
Dr. Doss completed a residual functional capacity questionnaire in January 2015. Tr. at
771–72. Noting Bridgers’s numbness and tingling from his carpal tunnel syndrome, Dr. Doss
opined that Bridgers’s symptoms would frequently interfere with the attention and concentration
required to perform simple, work-related tasks. Id. He also stated that Bridgers could sit for 60
minutes at a time for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday and stand for ten minutes at a time
for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday. Id. Dr. Doss also found that Bridgers would require
an option to shift positions at will from standing, sitting, or walking. Id. Bridgers would also
require unscheduled, five-minute breaks. Id. Bridgers could frequently lift or carry less than ten
pounds and occasionally lift or carry up to 20 pounds. Id. Finally, Dr. Doss opined that Bridgers’s
impairments would result in his absence from work two or more times per month. Id.
Two months later, Bridgers sought treatment from Dr. Mathew Gowans for back pain
radiating into his right leg. Tr. at 456, 459. Dr. Gowans’s examination disclosed pain with range
of motion and extension. Id. He assessed left SI joint dysfunction, for which he prescribed
In June 2015, Bridgers sought treatment from Dr. Jason Curry for pain management of his
left SI joint dysfunction. Tr. at 687. Bridgers reported pain with movement and prolonged sitting
which occasionally radiated into his left leg. Id. Dr. Curry assessed left SI joint dysfunction,
lumbago, and bilateral knee pain. Tr. at 690. He prescribed medications. Tr. at 691.
Two months later, Bridgers returned to Dr. Doss for his pain. Tr. at 765. An examination
showed crepitus in the bilateral knees with range of motion, tenderness in the back and left knee,
and 4/5 strength. Tr. at 768. Dr. Doss prescribed medication. Id.
Medical Opinion Evidence
Bridgers first maintains that ALJ Hogan failed to accord proper weight to the medical
opinions of Drs. Doss and Smith, his treating providers. The Commissioner argues that ALJ Hogan
properly considered this evidence. The court concludes that ALJ Hogan properly supported his
reasons to afford the assessments of these providers less weight.
“Medical opinions are statements from physicians and psychologists or other acceptable
medical sources that reflect judgments about the nature and severity of [a claimant’s]
impairment(s), including [the claimant’s] symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis, what [the claimant]
can still do despite impairment(s), and [the claimant’s] physical or mental restrictions.” 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(a)(2), 416.927(a)(2). An ALJ must consider all medical opinions in a case in
determining whether a claimant is disabled. See id. §§ 404.1527(c), 416.927(c); Nicholson v.
Comm’r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 600 F. Supp. 2d 740, 752 (N.D.W. Va. 2009) (“Pursuant to 20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1527(b), 416.927(b), an ALJ must consider all medical opinions when determining the
disability status of a claimant.”).
Opinions of treating physicians and psychologists on the nature and severity of
impairments must be given controlling weight if they are well supported by medically acceptable
clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and are not inconsistent with the other substantial
evidence in the record. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); see Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d
585, 590 (4th Cir. 1996); Ward v. Chafer, 924 F. Supp. 53, 55–56 (W.D. Va. 1996); SSR 96-2p,
1996 WL 374188 (July 2, 1996). Otherwise, the opinions are to be given significantly less weight.
Craig, 76 F.3d at 590. In determining the weight to be ascribed to an opinion, the ALJ should
consider the length and nature of the treating relationship, the supportability of the opinions, their
consistency with the record, any specialization of the source of the opinions, and other factors that
tend to support or contradict the opinions. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2)–(6), 416.927(c)(2)–(6).
The ALJ’s “decision must contain specific reasons for the weight given to the treating
source’s medical opinion, supported by the evidence in the case record, and must be sufficiently
specific to make clear to any subsequent reviewers the weight the [ALJ] gave to the treating
source’s medical opinion and the reasons for that weight.” SSR 96-2p, 1996 WL 374188, at *5;
see also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(2), 416.927(c)(2); Ashmore v. Colvin, No. 0:11-2865-TMC,
2013 WL 837643, at *2 (D.S.C. Mar. 6, 2013) (“In doing so [i.e., giving less weight to the
testimony of a treating physician], the ALJ must explain what weight is given to a treating
physician’s opinion and give specific reasons for his decision to discount the opinion.”).
Opinions from “other sources” who do not qualify as “acceptable medical sources” cannot
be given controlling weight but are evaluated under the same factors used to weigh the assessments
of physicians and psychologists. SSR 06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *2, 4 (Aug. 9, 2006); see
also 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1513(d)(1), 416.913(d)(1) (identifying “other sources”). An ALJ must
explain the weight given opinions of “other sources” and the reasons for the weight given. SSR
06-03p, 2006 WL 2329939, at *6; Napier v. Astrue, No. TJS-12-1096, 2013 WL 1856469, at *2
(D. Md. May 1, 2013).
Similarly, evaluations from sources who neither treat nor examine a claimant are
considered under the same basic standards as evaluations of medical opinions from treating
providers whose assessments are not given controlling weight. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c), (e),
416.927(c), (e). The ALJ must offer an explanation of the weight given to these opinions. Id.;
Casey v. Colvin, No. 4:14-cv-00004, 2015 WL 1810173, at *3 (W.D. Va. Mar. 12, 2015), adopted
by, 2015 WL 1810173, at *1 (Apr. 21, 2015); Napier, 2013 WL 1856469, at *2.
More weight is generally given to the opinion of a treating source over the opinion of a
non-treating examining source. Similarly, the opinion of an examining source is typically given
more weight than the opinion of a non-examining source. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(c)(1), (2),
416.927(c)(1), (2). Under appropriate circumstances, however, the opinions of a non-treating
examining source or a non-examining source may be given more weight than those of a treating
source. See, e.g., Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 178 (4th Cir. 2001) (affirming ALJ’s attribution
of greater weight to the opinions of a non-treating examining physician than to those of a treating
physician); SSR 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180, at *3 (July 2, 1996) (“In appropriate circumstances,
opinions from State agency medical and psychological consultants and other program physicians
and psychologists may be entitled to greater weight than the opinions of treating or examining
Opinions from medical sources on issues reserved to the Commissioner, such as disability,
are not entitled to any special weight. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1527(d), 416.927(d); SSR 96-5p, 1996
WL 374183, at *2, 5 (July 2, 1996). But the ALJ must still evaluate these opinions and give them
appropriate weight. SSR 96-5p, 1996 WL 374183, at *3 (“[O]pinions from any medical source on
issues reserved to the Commissioner must never be ignored. The adjudicator must evaluate all
evidence in the case record that may have a bearing on the determination or decision of disability,
including opinions from medical sources about issues reserved to the Commissioner.”).
Dr. Doss issued a Medical Source Statement in which he opined that Bridgers’s symptoms
would frequently interfere with his attention and concentration; he could sit for 60 minutes at a
time for up to six hours in an eight-hour workday and stand for ten minutes at a time for up to six
hours in an eight-hour workday; he needed to shift positions at will and required unscheduled,
five-minute breaks; he could frequently lift or carry less than ten pounds and occasionally lift or
carry up to 20 pounds; and he would be absent two or more times per month. Tr. at 771–72.
ALJ Hogan gave little weight to this assessment, finding that it was unsupported by, and
inconsistent with, other evidence in the record. Tr. at 21. ALJ Hogan noted that the Medical Source
Statement provided no citations to objective findings or clinical signs supporting Dr. Doss’s
assessed limitations, and his contemporaneous treatment records reflected generally normal
Bridgers argues that the opinion of Dr. Doss, his treating provider, was entitled to greater
weight because Dr. Doss’s assessment is supported by his treatment notes. For example, Dr. Doss’s
records demonstrate Bridgers experienced low back pain, attributed to SI joint dysfunction.
Examinations showed tenderness, positive results on objective testing, trigger points, reduced
strength, and crepitus. Bridgers received injections, medications, physical therapy, and referrals to
specialists to treat his conditions.
Bridgers also asserts that Dr. Doss’s findings were consistent with the records of other
providers. Dr. Moore noted back tenderness and spasms, which he diagnosed as SI joint
dysfunction and administered an injection. Physical therapy notes reflect that Bridgers had a stiff
posture, tenderness, abnormal gait and balance, and reduced range of motion. Dr. Curry noted
crepitus and a positive Patrick’s test. Dr. Osta observed tenderness and an abnormal gait, and
described Bridgers’s status as a “pain crisis.” Additionally, the objective testing showed
degenerative joint disease with nerve root contact and foraminal narrowing.
Despite this evidence, ALJ Hogan’s determination is supported by substantial evidence.
He remarked that Dr. Doss identified only two of Bridgers’s impairments—HIV, which was not
severe, and carpal tunnel, which resulted in numbness and tingling in his hands. Id. “Despite the
paucity in treatment,” Dr. Doss found that Bridgers could walk only one-half block, had to shift
positions, needed unscheduled breaks, and would miss work one to two times per month. Id. The
impairments Dr. Doss identified fail to support the limitations he assessed. Moreover, no
manipulative limitations related to carpal tunnel were assigned even though this impairment was
one of only two conditions identified in Dr. Doss’s Medical Source Statement. Id.
Just one month prior to his Medical Source Statement, Dr. Doss found that Bridgers was
independent in his activities of daily living and with ambulation, had full strength, and normal
range of motion. Two months later, records reveal that Bridgers experienced pain with flexation
and extension but noted that it improved with taking medications and moving around. Additional
evidence showed that at various times Bridgers demonstrated normal range of motion, reflexes,
sensation, and strength, and had negative straight leg tests. Although he occasionally used a cane
to ambulate, there was no evidence it was prescribed. As his treatment progressed, Bridgers gait
and stride improved.
Thus, although Dr. Doss had a treating relationship with Bridgers, and his records reflect
symptoms relating to his carpal tunnel and back impairments, other evidence supports the finding
that Bridgers was not as limited as Dr. Doss determined and had experienced some improvement
with treatment. This evidence undermines the severity of restrictions found by Dr. Doss and
supports ALJ Hogan’s evaluation of his assessment. Finding the determination supported by
substantial evidence, the undersigned declines the invitation to reweigh the evidence. See Johnson,
434 F.3d at 653 (a reviewing court should not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make
credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the ALJ). Accordingly, the court
denies Bridgers’s motion on this issue.
Dr. Smith issued a Medical Source Statement in January 2013 in which she opined that
Bridgers’s symptoms would interfere with his attention and concentration; he could sit for ten
minutes at a time for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday and he could stand or walk for ten
minutes at a time for up to two hours in an eight-hour workday; he would require unscheduled
breaks every 15–30 minutes; he could occasionally lift or carry up to ten pounds; and he would be
absent from work four or more times per month. Tr. at 328–29.
ALJ Hogan gave minimal weight to this assessment, finding that it, too, was unsupported
by, and inconsistent with, other evidence. Tr. at 22. Like Dr. Doss’s opinion, he concluded that
Dr. Smith’s findings were not supported by her contemporaneous treatment notes and inconsistent
with other evidence in the record. Id.
Bridgers maintains that ALJ Hogan noted generally normal examination findings as a
reason to give this provider’s opinion less weight but submits that the evidence supports her
assessed limitations. Bridgers cites the same evidence he identified to support his argument that
Dr. Doss’s opinion deserved more weight. But, as noted above, other evidence in the record
supports a finding that Bridgers was not as limited in functioning as these providers opined.
ALJ Hogan’s determination to assign less weight to Dr. Smith’s assessment is supported
by substantial evidence. Several months after Dr. Smith’s Medical Source Statement, Bridgers gait
had improved and he was better able to move about. Subsequent treatment noted reflect his ability
to ambulate continued to improve. The evidence also demonstrated that Bridgers was independent
in activities of daily living. He did laundry, went grocery shopping, attended church weekly and
served as an usher, and participated in family activities. Additionally, Bridgers’s treatment for his
conditions was limited to routine measures such as medications, injections, and physical therapy.
In sum, the evidence belies Dr. Smith’s extreme restrictions on Bridgers’s ability to
function. Thus, despite her treating relationship with Bridgers, Dr. Smith’s limitations were not
entitled to controlling weight for the reasons cited by ALJ Hogan. As substantial evidence supports
ALJ Hogan’s determination, Bridgers’s argument on this issue lacks merit and is rejected.
Bridgers also contends that ALJ Hogan erred when he considered the visual limitations
assessed by Dr. Swann. The Commissioner maintains that ALJ Hogan properly weighed this
evidence. The undersigned concludes that substantial evidence supports ALJ Hogan’s reasons not
to adopt the visual limitations assessed by Dr. Swann.
Dr. Swann opined that Bridgers could never perform tasks that required near or far visual
acuity with the right eye. Tr. at 20. He further opined that Bridgers should avoid concentrated
exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights. Id. Dr. Swann’s assessment also concluded
that Bridgers was capable of a reduced range of light work. Tr. at 20. He opined that Bridgers was
limited to no more than frequent climbing of ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and no more
than frequent stooping. Id.
ALJ Hogan gave little weight to Dr. Swann’s opinion, finding that subsequent evidence
revealed Bridgers to be more limited, thus warranting additional limitations. Tr. at 20–21. Bridgers
contends, however, that the visual limitations set forth in the RFC are less restrictive than Dr.
It appears clear that ALJ Hogan was referencing exertional and postural limitations when
he determined that Bridgers was more limited than Dr. Swann described. While Dr. Swann found
Bridgers could frequently climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and frequently stoop,
the RFC limited Bridgers to no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, only occasional climbing
ramps and stairs, and only occasional stooping. Tr. at 13.
The RFC also accounted for visual limitations by finding that Bridgers must avoid
concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery and unprotected heights and by
eliminating work that requires depth perception. Tr. at 13, 19. ALJ Hogan’s determination that
more-restrictive visual limitations were not warranted is supported by substantial evidence. ALJ
Hogan noted Bridgers’s impaired right eye vision but remarked that his main complaint concerned
itchiness and dryness. Tr. at 15. When testifying at the hearing, Bridgers made no mention of his
eyesight or the symptoms it caused. Tr. at 19. It did not appear to limit his activities of daily living.
The medical record was similarly silent of limitations relating to his vision. Id. Despite his lack of
right eye vision, in June 2013, Bridgers’s left eye has a visual acuity of 20/50 uncorrected and
20/40 with corrective lenses. Tr. at 16, 393. By October, his corrected vision was 20/20 in the left
eye. Tr. at 16, 427.
ALJ Hogan also noted that Bridgers was scheduled to undergo cataract removal on the
right eye, which would likely improve his vision. But the record lacked evidence that the surgery
occurred. Tr. at 17, 19.
In sum, the evidence supports a finding that Bridgers’s vision did not support greater
restriction than ALJ Hogan determined in his RFC finding. As noted above, Bridgers’s left eye
vision was correctable to perfect acuity, he made no allegations about how his vision restricted his
activities or functional abilities, and the medical record did not support greater visual restrictions.
As substantial evidence supports ALJ Hogan’s determination that Bridgers’s vision is not more
limited, his argument on this issue lacks merit.
Finally, Bridgers asserts that ALJ Hogan erred at step five by failing to resolve conflicts
between the VE’s testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) related to his
limited vision. He further asserts that ALJ Hogan failed elicit testimony that included all of his
limitations. The Commissioner maintains that there was no conflict between the VE’s testimony
and the DOT. She further contends that the VE’s testimony reflected all of Bridgers’s wellsupported limitations. The undersigned finds that the step five determination is supported by
substantial evidence and any error if failing to identify a conflict with one of the three positions
found suitable for Bridgers was harmless.
As noted above, while a claimant has the burden at steps one through four, it is the
Commissioner’s burden at step five to show that work the claimant is capable of performing is
available. Pass, 65 F.3d at 1203 (citing Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 21, 35 (4th Cir. 1992)). “The
Commissioner may meet this burden by relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (Grids) or
by calling a vocational expert [(“VE”)] to testify.” Aistrop v. Barnhart, 36 F. App’x 145, 146 (4th
Cir. 2002) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566)). The Grids are published tables that take administrative
notice of the number of unskilled jobs at each exertional level in the national economy. 20 C.F.R.
Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2 § 200.00(a).
When a claimant suffers solely from exertional impairments, the Grids may satisfy the
Commissioner’s burden of coming forward with evidence as to the availability of jobs the claimant
can perform. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983). When a claimant: (1) suffers
from a non-exertional impairment that restricts his ability to perform work of which he is
exertionally capable, or (2) suffers an exertional impairment which restricts him from performing
the full range of activity covered by a work category, the ALJ may not rely on the Grids and must
produce specific vocational evidence showing that the national economy offers employment
opportunities to the claimant. See Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 49 (4th Cir. 1989); Hammond v.
Heckler, 765 F.2d 424, 425–26 (4th Cir. 1985); Cook v. Chater, 901 F. Supp. 971 (D. Md. 1995);
20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 2, § 201.00(h).
The Regulations permit testimony from a VE to determine “whether [a claimant’s] work
skills can be used in other work and the specific occupations in which they can be used[.]” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1566(e), 416.966(e). In order for a VE’s testimony to be relevant, an ALJ’s
hypothetical question must represent all of a claimant’s substantial impairments. Walker, 889 F.2d
at 50; Burnette v. Astrue, No. 2:08-cv-0009-FL, 2009 WL 863372, at *4 (E.D.N.C. Mar. 24, 2009)
(relevant hypothetical question should adequately reflect claimant’s RFC and fairly set out a
claimant’s limitations). If limitations are omitted, the VE’s testimony is of limited value, and may
not constitute substantial evidence. See Johnson, 434 F.3d at 659 (citing Walker, 889 F.2d at 50).
Before relying on a VE’s testimony an ALJ must “[i]dentify and obtain a reasonable
explanation for any conflicts between occupational evidence provided by VEs . . . and information
in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT), . . . and [e]xplain in the determination or decision
how any conflict that has been identified was resolved.” SSR 00–4P, 2000 WL 1898704 (Dec. 4,
2000). “Occupational evidence provided by a VE . . . generally should be consistent with the
occupational information supplied by the DOT.” Id. “When there is an apparent unresolved
conflict between VE . . . and the DOT, the adjudicator must elicit a reasonable explanation for the
conflict before relying on the VE . . . to support a determination or decision about whether the
claimant is disabled.” Id. “At the hearings level, as part of the adjudicator’s duty to fully develop
the record, the adjudicator will inquire, on the record, as to whether or not there is such
ALJ Hogan asked the VE if her testimony was consistent with the DOT and its companion
volume, the Selected Characteristics of Occupations (“SCO”). Tr. at 24, 57. The VE responded
that it was consistent. Id. 4
Bridgers asserts the VE’s identification of the parking lot attendant job conflicts with the
DOT, which describes that position as requiring frequent depth perception. As noted above, ALJ
Hogan’s RFC determination precluded work that required depth perception. Tr. at 13.
Accordingly, there is a conflict and it was an error for ALJ Hogan to find, at step five, that the
parking lot attendant job was compatible with Bridgers’s RFC.
However, any error in failing to recognize this conflict is harmless where, as here, the VE
identified two other jobs—cashier and furniture rental consultant—that Bridgers can perform. See
Jacobs v. Colvin, No. 7:13-cv-184-RJ, 2015 WL 1471256, at * 9 (E.D.N.C. Mar. 31, 2015) (any
error by VE in failing to explain conflict between DOT description of cleaner job and RFC
limitation of no kneeling was harmless because other positions identified that claimant could
perform); Taylor v. Astrue, No. 5:10–CV–263–FL, 2011 WL 1599679, at *13 (E.D.N.C. Mar. 23,
2011) (finding error in relying on non-postal mail clerk position was harmless where the VE
identified other jobs that the hypothetical individual could perform) (citation omitted).
Bridgers asserts that the there is a conflict with cashier and furniture rental consultant jobs
because the DOT describes these positions as requiring frequent near visual acuity. However, the
RFC contains no such restriction on Bridgers’s visual acuity. As noted above, ALJ Hogan declined
to adopt Dr. Swann’s assessment of this limitation. Accordingly, the near visual acuity requirement
of the cashier and furniture rental consultant positions does not present a conflict with Bridgers’s
Although unrelated to any visual limitation, the VE stated that restrictions for overhead reaching,
frequent breaks, absenteeism, and a sit/stand option were based on her professional training and
experience. Tr. at 57.
RFC. Therefore, the identification of these positions satisfies the Commissioners step five burden.
Consequently, this issue does not warrant remand.
For the forgoing reasons, the court denies Bridgers’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings
(D.E. 20), grants Berryhill’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (D.E. 24), and affirms the
Commissioner’s determination. This action is dismissed. The Clerk shall close this case.
Dated: January 10, 2018
Robert T.OBERT T. NII
R Numbers, UMBERS, II
United States Magistrate Judge
UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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