Gatling v. Colvin
ORDER granting 17 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; denying 20 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Signed by District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 1/13/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
WENDELL KINCAID GATLING,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN,
Acting Commissioner ofSocial 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 December 15, 2016, at Raleigh,
For the reasons discussed below, this matter is remanded to the Acting
Commissioner for further proceedings.
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) under Title II of the Social Security Act and supplemental security income (SSI)
under Title VXI of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff filed for DIB and SSI on July 25, 2011,
alleging disability since April 29, 2010. After initial denials, a hearing via videoconference 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.
decision in this Court.
Plaintiff then timely sought review of the Commissioner's
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. 137, 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 bipolar
disorder, obesity, and history of orthopedic problems were considered severe impairments at step
two but were not found alone or in combination to meet or equal a Listing at step three. The ALJ
then concluded that plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform a restricted
range of sedentary work. The ALJ found that plaintiff could not perform his past relevant work
as corrections officer, but found that, considering plaintiffs age, education, work experience,
and RFC, there were jobs which existed in significant numbers in the national economy that
plaintiff could perform. Thus, the ALJ determined that plaintiff was not disabled as of the date
of his decision, December 20, 2012.
A severe impairment is one which significantly limits a claimant's ability to perform
basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). "An impairment can be considered as 'not
severe' only if it is a slight abnormality which has such a minimal effect on the individual that it
would not be expected to interfere with the individual's ability to work, irrespective of age,
education, or work experience." Evans v. Heckler, 734 F.2d 1012, 1014 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting
Brady v. Heckler, 724 F.2d 914, 920 (I Ith Cir.1984) (internal quotations and alterations
omitted). "Ordinarily, this is not a difficult hurdle for the claimant to clear." Albright v. Comm 'r
ofSoc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 474 n.l (4th Cir. 1999). Here, the ALJ considered plaintiff's
bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, but concluded that it was not a severe impairment, noting that
plaintiff underwent carpal tunnel release surgery on March 29, 2012, had recovered, and that
there were no residual problems which would indicate functional limitations. Tr. 35. Substantial
evidence in the record does not support the ALJ' s conclusion.
While plaintiff underwent carpal tunnel release surgery on his left wrist in March 2012,
Tr. 938, plaintiff has not undergone surgery on his right wrist, although he was diagnosed with
bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome. Tr. 931 (moderate to severe axonal and demyelinating sensorymotor median neuropathy at bilateral wrist). Further, although the ALJ concluded that plaintiff's
carpal tunnel syndrome had resolved, the record reflects that plaintiff's carpal tunnel syndrome
continued to be characterized as chronic after the 2012 surgery, that plaintiff's neuralgia on the
left had resolved although he still reported pain, and that plaintiff was advised by his physician to
continue to split his wrist in the evenings for pain. Tr. 762. In August 2012, plaintiff's physician
reported return of neuralgia on the left and continued neuralgia on the right, positive Tinel's tests
at digits 1, 2, and 3 on the left, and positive Flick sign on the left; plaintiff's physician urged him
to follow-up with his orthopedic surgeon regarding hand pain. Tr. 755-56. Regarding why
plaintiff has not undergone any subsequent carpal tunnel surgeries, plaintiff submits that he had
to save money to pay for the first carpal tunnel release surgery, and a "claimant may not be
penalized for failing to seek treatment she cannot afford." Lovejoy v. Heckler, 790 F.2d 1114,
Thus, the record does not support the ALJ' s conclusion that plaintiffs carpal tunnel
syndrome had resolved. This error is particularly harmful here because plaintiff was limited by
the ALJ to a reduced range of sedentary work, which often involves "good use of both hands and
the fingers; i.e., bilateral manual dexterity." SSR 96-9p. Remand is therefore appropriate for the
ALJ to consider again the severity of plaintiffs carpal tunnel syndrome and its effects on
plaintiffs ability to perform work.
For the foregoing reasons, plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 17] is
GRANTED and defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 20] is DENIED. The
decision of the ALJ is REMANDED to the Acting Commissioner for further proceedings
consistent with the foregoing.
SO ORDERED, this
day of January, 2017.
ERRENCE W. BOYLE
UNITED STATES DIST
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