Sanders v. Colvin
ORDER denying 16 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and granting 19 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 3/28/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social 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 March 16, 2017, in Raleigh, North
Carolina. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.
Plaintiff brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the
final decision of the Commissioner denying his claim for disability and disability insurance
benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") pursuant to Titles II and XVI of the
Social Security Act. Plaintiff protectively filed his applications on August 16, 2012, alleging
disability beginning May 29, 2012. After initial denials, a hearing was held before an
Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") who issued an unfavorable ruling. The decision of the ALJ
became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs
request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought review of the Commissioner's decision in this
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
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. 13 7, 146 n.5 (1987). If a decision
regarding disability can be made at any step of the process, however, the inquiry ceases. See 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).
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 is denied. 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.
At step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff met the insured status requirements and
had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date. Plaintiffs physical
impairments were considered severe at step two, but were not found alone or in combination to
meet or equal a listing at step three. At step four the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the RFC to
perform light work with the following restrictions: to never crawl, climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds; to only occasional push/pull with the left lower extremity; and to occasionally climb
ramps and stairs, balance, kneel crouch, and frequently stoop. The ALJ then found that plaintiff
was able to return to his past work as a courier for a pharmaceutical company even with the
limitations listed above. The ALJ further found that, although the evidence does not support such
a limitation, even if the claimant were limited to work primarily seated, he could still do other
work identified by the vocational expert ("VE") including a reduced number of light cashier
positions, light storage facility rental clerk, and merchandise marker. Therefore, in considering
plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that existed in
significant numbers in the national economy that plaintiff could perform. Thus, the ALJ
determined that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act.
The Court finds that the ALJ' s decision in this instance is supported by substantial
evidence. Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiffs impairments did not
meet or medically equal listing 1.02, Major Dysfunction of a Joint.
Plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating that his impairments met or medically equaled
the severity of those in the Listing oflmpairments. See Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th
Cir. 1981 ). Further, he must present "medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the
one most similar listed impairment," and "cannot qualify for benefits under the equivalence step
by showing that the overall functional impact of his unlisted impairment or combination of
impairments is as severe as that of a listed impairment." Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 531
(1990) (emphasis in original).
According to the regulations, to meet Listing 1.02 one must have a gross anatomical
deformity and chronic joint pain and stiffness with signs of limitation of motion or other
abnormal motion of the affectedjoint(s), and joint space narrowing, bony deconstruction, or
ankyloses of the affected joints, and resulting in inability to ambulate effectively, as defined in
LOO B2b. The evidence shows that plaintiff has a history ofleft knee pain and surgical repair
with episodes of chronic knee pain, treatment of pain symptoms, and diagnoses of knee pain.
None of this, however, rises to the level of meeting a listing. The record shows that plaintiff was
treated with inflammatory and pain medication that resulted in improved symptoms and
controlled his pain. The record does not show that plaintiffs condition resulted in an inability to
ambulate effectively. No treatment notes from any physician documented an extreme limitation
in his ability to walk. Dr. Yap, a treating physician, opined that plaintiff had evidence of
osteoarthritis, ordered a knee brace and a TENS unit, and prescribed pain medication, and the
next month, plaintiff reported improved pain symptoms with medication. Tr. 362-66; 381-82.
The consultative examiner, Dr. Masere, found that plaintiff could rise from a seated position
without assistance, get up and down from the exam table; walk on his heels and toes with ease
and tandem walk. Tr. 293-97. Dr. Masere additionally found that plaintiff could sit normally in
an eight-hour day with normal breaks; occasionally bend, stoop, crouch, and squat; and did not
need an assistive device for either short or long distances or uneven terrain. Tr. 297. For these
reasons, plaintiff did not meet his burden at this stage, and substantial evidence supports the
ALJ's findings that plaintiff does not meet Listing 1.02 or any other Listing.
Plaintiff next argues that the ALJ erred in finding that plaintiff has the RFC to perform
light work with limitations. 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 should 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).
Plaintiff primarily relies on his own testimony in arguing that the evidence does not
support the ALJ's RFC finding. However, subjective testimony alone cannot sustain a finding of
disability, and the extent to which an individual's statements about symptoms can be relied upon
as probative evidence in determining whether the individual is disabled depends on the
credibility of the statements. SSR 16-3p. Because plaintiff does not cite to any contradictory
medical opinion or evidence to support his contention that the ALJ's RFC was incorrectly made,
because the ALJ expressly accounted for plaintiffs documented impairments in his RFC, and
because the ALJ properly relied on physician examinations which supported his findings, the
Court finds that the ALJ' s RFC is supported by substantial evidence.
Finally, plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding plaintiffs allegations not credible.
Plaintiff testified that he can only stand, sit, and walk for 10-15 minutes each day due to knee
and ankle pain and that he suffers from debilitating depression. The ALJ found that this
testimony was not consistent with the medical evidence.
In determining the credibility of a claimant's statements, the adjudicator must consider
the entire case record, including objective medical evidence, the individual's own statements,
information provided by treating or examining physicians or psychologists, and any other
relevant evidence in the case record. See SSR 96-7p. An ALJ's credibility determination should
be afforded great deference. Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984). Further, "pain
is not disabling per se, and subjective evidence of pain cannot take precedence over objective
medical evidence ofrecord or the lack thereof." Craig v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 592 (quoting
Gross v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1163 (4th Cir. 1986)).
The Count finds no reason to overturn the ALJ's credibility determination. Plaintiff
testified that the pain in his left knee limits his daily activities, that he cannot do excessive
walking or standing and can only sit for 15 to 20 minutes at a time and can stand for only 15 to
20 minutes at a time. Tr. 51. Plaintiff also testified that he can only walk for a maximum of 4 to 5
minutes before he has to take a break. Tr. 55. However, plaintiff also testified, and the record
shows, that he can walk around, go outside, go to the park, drive his brother's car, do laundry,
prepare simple meals, watch television, shop in stores, gets haircuts, attends church, enjoy
fishing, and visit his mother. Tr. 40, 59, 84, 239--45, 300, 345. Thus, the ALJ was correct in
opining that plaintiffs testimony is not consistent with his actual daily living activities.
Additionally, none of the medical record evidence supports plaintiffs testimony that his
symptoms are as debilitating or as severe as he claims, as no treating or consultative physician
opined that plaintiff is as limited in his motion or ability as plaintiff claims he is. Plaintiff does
not cite to any corroborating evidence in the record, aside from his own statements made at the
hearing, to support the credibility of those very same statements. Rather, the objective medical
record evidence supports a finding that, though not without pain, plaintiff can meet the demands
of light work and that plaintiffs testimony was not credible.
The ALJ determined that plaintiffs pain and limitations were neither disabling in nature
nor preclusive of his ability to perform a significant range of light work during the relevant
period. Tr. 340--44. The ALJ found that in conjunction with his significant daily activities,
plaintiffs symptoms were not as severe or limiting as he alleged. Id. This is supported by the
record evidence, and the Court finds no reason to disturb the ALJ's credibility finding as it was
supported by medical and other evidence in the record.
Nonetheless, even if the ALJ erred in not crediting plaintiffs testimony that he cannot
stand and walk at a light work level of exertion or that his depression would affect his ability to
work, such an error would be harmless. The ALJ expressly considered and found that, although
the evidence does not support such a limitation, even if the claimant were limited to work
primarily seated, he could still do other work existing in significant numbers nationwide
identified by the VE including a reduced number of light cashier positions, light storage facility
rental clerk, and merchandise marker. Additionally, the ALJ considered plaintiffs claim of
severe depression, and found that, even if plaintiffs depression were in fact severe and he were
limited to simple routine tasks with no fast pace and a relatively unchanging setting and process,
all of these same unskilled positions would apply according to the VE.
In summary, the evidence relied on by the ALJ, including physician opinions and record
medical evidence, supported his listing, RFC and credibility findings. For this and all the reasons
discussed above, the Court finds that the decision of the ALJ in this case is supported by
substantial evidence. The decision of the Commissioner is therefore affirmed.
Accordingly, plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 16] is DENIED and
defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 19] is GRANTED. The decision of the
Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
SO ORDERED, this
ll_day of March, 2017.
NCE W. BOYLE
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDG
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