Alexander 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 8/22/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
TONYA MICHELLE ALEXANDER,
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, 19]. A hearing on this matter was held in Raleigh, North Carolina on July 25, 2017.
For the reasons discussed below, plaintiff's motion [D.E. 16] is DENIED and
defendant's motion [D.E. 19] is GRANTED. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.
Plaintiff asserts that the following medical conditions prevent her from working: lumbar
degenerative disc disease with a herniated disc; obstructive sleep apnea; bilateral carpal tunnel
syndrome; hypertension; and depression. [D.E. 17] at 3, 11. On the alleged disability onset date
of November 12, 2010, plaintiff was 34 years old. Id.
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. See
[Tr. 248-58]. Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 17883, 192-200]. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on October 7, 2014, to
consider plaintiff's claims de novo. [Tr. 93-121]. On January 29, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision
denying plaintiff's claim. [Tr. 74-92]. On June 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs
request for review [Tr. 1--4], and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision.
On August 18, 2016, plaintiff filed with the court· a complaint seeking judicial review of pursuant
to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). [DE 5].
A district court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining
whether the correct legal standard was applied 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).
The ALJ engages in a sequential five-step evaluation process to make an initial disability
determination. 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). If a decision regardingthe claimant's disability
can be made at any step of the process, the ALJ's inquiry ceases. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).
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. At step three, the ALJ
compares the claimant's impairment to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part
404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed, or equivalent to a listed impairment, disability
is conclusively presumed without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience.
20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). However, ifthe impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment,
the ALJ then makes a residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e).
In making an RFC finding, the ALJ's considers both severe and non-severe impairments,
and any combination thereof, and takes into acc01,mt 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 she can perform
past relevant work ("PRW") despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If not, 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 work. Id. To determine
what occupations are available that a claimant could perform, the 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 finds her disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).
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 *l. 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. Chater, 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 reasonably could be expected to produce the pain or other alleged
symptoms. 20 C.F .R. § 404.1529(b). Second, the ALJ evaluates the intensity and persistence of
the symptoms to determine if a claimant's capacity for work is limited. 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.
Here, the ALJ' s decision followed the sequential five-step evaluation process. [Tr. 7986]. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since
the alleged disability onset date ofNovember 12, 2010. [Tr. 79]. At step two, the ALJ enumerated
plaintiff's severe impairments, including: lumbar degenerative disc disease with small disc
herniation at L4-5; obesity; obstructive sleep apnea; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome; and
The ALJ also determined that plaintiff's depression was not a severe
impairment. [Tr. 80-81]. At step three, the ALJ found that none of plaintiff's impairments, nor
any combination thereof, met or equaled one of the conditions in the Listing oflmpairments. [Tr.
81]. The ALJ then determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with the
following restrictions: "she is limited to frequent fingering and handling; frequent stair climbing;
occasional ladder climbing; and occasional balancing as defined in the SOC and DOT, and
occasional stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling." [Tr. 82].
On the basis of the ALJ' s RFC determination, the vocational expert ("VE") testified at the
October 7, 2014, hearing that plaintiff could not perform her PRW as a corrections officer or
security guard. [Tr. 117-18]. However, the VE also testified that~plaintiff could perform other
jobs, including: (1) cuff folder (D.O.T. # 686.687-014), with 1,000 jobs available in North Carolina
and 60,000 jobs nationally; (2) nut sorter (DOT# 521.687-086), with 600 jobs available in North
Carolina and 40,000 jobs nationally; .(3) egg processor (DOT# 559.687-034), with 800 jobs
available in North Carolina and 60,000 jobs nationally. [Tr. 118-19].
At step four, the ALJ agreed that plaintiff could not perform her PRW. [Tr. 8,5]. At step
five, the ALJ found that the VE's testimony was consistent with the DOT and determined that
plaintiff was not disabled because she could adjust to other substantial gainful work. [Tr. 86-87].
Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred in finding that she had the RFC to perform sedentary
work. See [D.E. 17] at 10. Specifically, plaintiff contends that the ALJ's RFC assessment is not
supported by substantial evidence because (1) due to chronic low back pain, she is unable to sit for
six hours in an eight-hour workday; (2) her carpal tunnel syndrome would preclude her from
performing frequent fingering and handling; and (3) the ALJ failed to take into consideration, or
incorporate into the RFC, her mental limitations due to depression. Id. at 10-11.
Contrary to plaintiffs first argument, the record reflects that, when making his RFC
determination, the ALJ carefully considered the entire record and discussed the existence and
consequences of plaintiffs documented impairments including, among other things, her low back
pain, carpel tunnel syndrome, and depression. See [Tr. 79-87]. The ALJ concluded that, although
the cumulative effects of these impairments would preclude plaintiff from engaging in any type of
employment except sedentary work, these impairments were not totally disabling. [Tr. 86-87].
As to plaintiffs first specific contention-that her chronic low back pain precludes her from
. sitting for six hours in an eight-hour workday, as is required for sedentary work-the ALJ found
that her back condition was not as limiting as she alleged. [Tr. 83]. The ALJ noted that, although
a March 2013 examination found that plaintiff had reduced range of spinal motion and pain,
plaintiff had also asserted that her condition improved with rest and medication. Id. (referencing
Tr. 528, 530, 533). The ALJ also noted that, in July 2014, there were no signs ofradiculopathy.
Id. (referencing Tr. 662). The ALJ determined that various medical examinations finding that
plaintiff was capable of accomplishing seated work were more consistent with the mild nature of
her degenerative disc disease and her demonstrated capacity to engage non-work activities that her
statements to the contrary. [Tr. 84-85] (referencing, e.g., Tr. 353, 356, 514].
As to plaintiffs second contention-that her carpal tunnel syndrome would preclude her
from accomplishing frequent fingering and handling-the ALJ again found that this condition did
not appear to be as limiting as she alleged. [Tr. 84]. The ALJ noted that, post physical therapy,
plaintiffs grip strength was improved. Id. (referencing Tr. 652). Further, the ALJ noted that,
although plaintiff complained again of hand numbness in October 2014, a treating physician in
July 2014 deemed that plaintiffs carpal tunnel condition had resolved. Id. (referencing Tr. 662).
Plaintiffs third contention-that the ALJ failed to take into consideration her mental
limitations due to depression-is belied by the record. The ALJ noted that plaintiffs depression
was a determinable mental impairment, but found that the condition was not severe because it
caused no more than minimal limitations to plaintiffs ability to perform basic mental work
activities. [Tr. 80]. The ALJ further found that plaintiffs depression caused no restriction in
activities of daily living; only mild limitation. in social functioning; mild difficulties with
concentration, persistence, or pace; and no episodes of decompensation of extended duration. Id.
Succinctly stated, the court finds that 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. Moreover, there
is no discrepancy between the limitations in the ALJ' s RFC finding and the requirements of the
jobs that the ALJ, based on the VE's testimony, found that plaintiff could perform.
Plaintiff's second argument is that the ALJ erred in rendering a negative credibility
determination. [D.E. 17] at 11. 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 discredited her subjective complaints that pain prevented her from completing a full
workday and dismissed these complaints as inconsistent with the record. See [D.E. 17] at 12.
As discussed above, the ALJ found objective medical evidence that plaintiff suffers from,
among other things, low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and depression. See [Tr. 79-80]. The
ALJ also determined that plaintiff's medically discemable impairments could reasonably be
expected to cause the symptoms alleged. [Tr. 83]. 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. Id.
In support of this adverse credibility finding, the ALJ noted several conflicts between
plaintiff's statements and the record medical evidence. For example, as to plaintiff's low back
pain, the ALJ noted that, although the condition is severe, Dr. Sylvester Odeke's October 2012
opinion found that plaintiff "could lift, carry, and handle light objects, was able to rise from a
seated position, had no difficulty getting on or off the examination table could heel and toe walk
with ease, had a normal gait, could dress and undress adequately, and had a normal range of
motion." [Tr. 84] (referencing Tr. 513). As to plaintiff's assertion that she is unable to handle or
finger frequently due to carpel tunnel syndrome, the ALJ noted that Dr. Suzanne Zorn's July 2014
examination found that this condition had resolved. Id. (referencing Tr. 662). As to plaintiffs
assertions that her depression precludes her from engaging in other work, as discussed above, the
ALJ found that her mental health impairment was not severe because plaintiff did not initially
allege functional limitations due to this condition, she attended church regularly, and because she
was able to manage her own finances. 1 [Tr. 80]
Although plaintiff asserts that the ALJ misapplied the legal standard of Hines, the two cases
are substantially distinguishable. In Hines, an ALJ denied disability benefits largely because the
claimant provided no objective evidence to support his subjective claims of disabling pain due to
sickle cell anemia, 453 F.3d at 562--63. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ("Fourth
Circuit") determined that, because sickle cell anemia is an unusual condition that rarely produces
objective medical evidence of pain, the claimant was entitled solely to rely upon subjective
evidence to demonstrate his disabling pain. 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 expec~ed to cause the pain the claimant alleges she suffers."
Id. at 565 n.3 (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 595).
Although the ALJ did not specifically discuss the consistency of plaintiff's mental health complaints when
considering the credibility of her statements, the record reflects inconsistencies in plaintiff's assertions of depression
and anxiety. Compare [Tr. 525] (diagnosing, in a February 2013 evaluation, dysthymia) with [Tr. 518] (denying
depression and significant anxiety in a January 2013 progress note) and [Tr. 390] (noting no depression in a March
2013 emergency room visit for a sprained ankle) and [Tr. 491-92] (denying psychiatric symptoms in an October 2011
history and physical examination). These inconsistencies do not undermine the ALJ's determination, and thus, to the
extent that the ALJ failed to address them, any such error is harmless. See Patterson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin.,
846 F.3d 656, 658 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Shinseki v. Sanders, 556 U.S. 396, 409 (2009), for the proposition that the
"general case law governing application of the harmless-error standard" applies equally to administrative cases).
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 plaintiffs 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 claim.ant'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 653.
For the foregoing reasons·, defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [D.E. 19] is
GRANTED and plaintiffs motion [D.E. 16] is DENIED. The decision of the Commissioner is
AFFIRMED. The clerk is DIRECTED to close the file.
This ~~ay of August, 2017.
RRENCE W. BOYLE
. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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