Price v. Colvin
ORDER granting 16 Motion for Summary Judgment and denying 17 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 8/25/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner ofSocial Security,
This cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. 1 A
hearing on the motions was held before the undersigned on September 20, 2017, at Raleigh,
North Carolina. For the reasons that follow, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed.
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) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff protectively applied for
DIB on January 9, 2014, and alleged an onset date of December 9, 2013. After initial denials, an
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) held a hearing and thereafter issued an unfavorable decision.
The ALJ' s decision became the decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied
plaintiff's request for review.
Plaintiff then timely sought review of the Commissioner's
decision in this Court.
Plaintiff denominated his motion a motion for summary judgment rather than a motion for
judgment on the pleadings.
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
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. 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 impairn;ient, it is compared at step three to those in the Listing of Impairments
("Listing") in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. I. 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
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 found that plaintiff met the insured status requirements through June
30, 2019, and that he had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date.
The ALJ found plaintiffs degenerative disc disease, anxiety disorder, and affective disorder to
be severe impairments at step two but found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or
combination of impairments which met or equaled a Listing at step three.
The ALJ then found
that plaintiff could perform light work with limitations, including being permitted to change
positions every half hour and use a cane for walking. At step four the ALJ found that plaintiff
could not return to his past relevant work as a police officer and truck driver but that, considering
plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, plaintiff could perform jobs which existed
in significant numbers in the national economy. Those jobs included laundry classifier, egg
candler, and small products assembler. Thus, the ALJ found that plaintiff was not disabled from
December 9, 2013, through the date of her decision.
The ALJ found that a limitation to light work would accommodate plaintiffs
degenerative.disc disease, but such conclusion is not supported by substantial evidence. An RFC
should reflect the most that a claimant can do, despite the claimant's limitations. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1545(a). 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).
Light work involves lifting no more than twenty pounds at a time, frequently lifting and carrying
ten pounds at a time, and requires a good deal of standing or walking. 20 C.F .R. § 404.1567.
The Veteran's Administration (VA) assessed plaintiff as having 100% permanent and
total disability and further found plaintiff to be unemployable. Tr. 514. A determination of
unemployability by the VA may only be made where a veteran is unable to "secure and follow a
substantially gainful occupation by reason of service-connected disabilities." 36 C.F.R. § 4.16.
The ALJ addressed the VA's disability and unemployability ratings, but dismissed them in
cursory fashion, affording them little and no weight. Specifically in regard to plaintiffs VA
disability rating, the ALJ gave the determination little weight because it was based on diagnoses
and clinical findings rather than functional limitations, including the ability to sit, stand, walk,
lift, and carry, experienced by plaintiff.
A disability determination by the VA must be given substantial weight unless the record
before the ALJ demonstrates that less weight is appropriate. Bird v. Comm 'r ofSoc. Sec. Admin.,
699 F.3d 337, 343 (4th Cir. 2012).
Here, the ALJ has clearly explained his rationale for
discounting the VA's opinions, but such rationale is not supported by substantial evidence.
Rather, when considered together, the VA's ratings, plaintiffs treating physician's opinion, and
plaintiffs testimony regarding his limitations support a finding that plaintiff was limited to
Plaintiffs treating physician, Dr. Maynard, assessed plaintiff as being able to perform
sedentary work. Tr. 28; 566-570. Dr. Maynard noted that clinical findings and objective signs
indicated that plaintiff had limited range of motion due to back pain secondary to disc disease
and that plaintiff would be very limited in his ability to lift, push, pull, or stand and sit for
prolonged periods. A treating source's opinion is entitled to controlling weight if it is "wellsupported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not
inconsistent with the other substantial evidence in the case record." 20 C.F. R. § 404.1527(c)(2).
Although the ALJ indicated that plaintiffs back pain, which he had experienced since 1988, had
not worsened, the record fails to support that conclusion. A December 2013 MRI revealed a
herniated disc at L5-Sl and disc bulge at L4-L5. Tr. 276. In January 2014 plaintiff reported
worsening pain when standing or walking and was diagnosed by a neurosurgeon with lumbar
degenerative disc and sacroiliac dysfunction with sacroiliitis. Tr. 288. A March 20, 2014,
physical therapy note reveals that plaintiffs pain had been manageable for years until December
2013 when the pain began to worsen, and that a series of injections had not seemed to help. Tr.
371. In February 2014, it was noted by Dr. Maynard that injections for plaintiffs back increased
pain and that plaintiffs prescription pain medication had been increased. Tr. 354. The ALJ
relied on plaintiffs hearing testimony that he was looking for and would have tried "light duty"
work in December 2013 to support the RFC finding, but the hearing transcript plainly reveals
that plaintiffs idea of "light duty" work was answering the telephone and sitting at a desk. Tr.
46. Plaintiff testified at the hearing that he uses a cane for both walking and balance. Tr. 47.
Dr. Cox, a consultative examiner, found that plaintiff required a cane to balance but not for
walking. Tr. 92-93. The ALJ gave this opinion partial weight, noting that evidence supports
further limitations than those found by Dr. Cox. Tr. 29. In the RFC finding, however, the ALJ
determined that plaintiff requires a cane for walking only.
Substantial evidence does not support the ALJ's conclusion that plaintiff could perform
light work, but a finding that plaintiff could perform sedentary work as indicated by Dr. Maynard
is supported by the record. Because it appears that a limitation to sedentary work would direct a
finding of disability once plaintiff attained the age of fifty, see 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P,
App'x II§ 202.06, this matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with the foregoing
so that the ALJ may determine whether an award of benefits is directed by the Medical
Vocational Guidelines. See Crider v. Harris, 624 F.2d 15, 17 (4th Cir. 1980); Breeden v.
Weinberger, 493 F.2d 1002, 1012 (4th Cir. 1974).
For the foregoing reasons, plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 16] is
GRANTED and defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 17] is DENIED.
decision of the ALJ is REVERSED and this matter is REMANDED to the Commissioner for
further proceedings consistent with the foregoing.
SO ORDERED, this _¢£day of September, 2017.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDG
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