Farior v. Colvin
ORDER granting 20 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and denying 22 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. Signed by US District Judge Terrence W. Boyle on 9/19/2017. (Stouch, L.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
STACY D. FARIOR,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL
Acting Commissioner ofSocial Security,
This cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings,
pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. A hearing was held on these
motions before the undersigned on August 31, 2017, in Edenton, North Carolina. For the reasons
discussed below, the 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 her claim for 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 her application for DIB on March 14, 2012 and for
SSI on September 19, 2012, alleging disability beginning September 11, 2012. After initial
denial and reconsideration, 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 Court.
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 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 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 ifthe claimant can perform her
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 her
age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform other substantial gainful work. If the
claimant cannot perform other work, then she 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 her alleged onset date. Plaintiffs obesity,
chronic-obstructive-pulmonary disease ("COPD"), diabetes, learning disorder, and history of
coronary-artery disease 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 concluded that plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work with additional
exertional limitations. The ALJ then fotind that Plaintiff was unable to perform any past relevant
work, but that, considering Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and testimony from
the vocational expert ("VE"), 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 ALJ failed to appropriately evaluate the opinion of Plaintiffs treating physician, Dr.
Singh. According to the regulations, certain factors are considered to determine the weight given
to a medical opinion, including the "examining relationship" and "treatment relationship." 20
C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(l)-(2). Opinions from examining and treating sources are generally given
more weight than other opinions. Id.; Brown v. Berryhill, 2017 WL 2574449 (E.D.N.C. 2017). If
a treating physician's opinion is "well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory
diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with the other substantial evidence," it will be given
controlling weight. 20 C.F.R. §404.1527(c)(l)-(2).
Here, the ALJ, instead of giving more weight to Dr. Singh's evaluation due to his
relationship to Plaintiff, as the regulations require, gave less weight. The ALJ criticized the form
- of Dr. Singh's evaluation, but did not either find it to be medically unacceptable or rely on the
form in coming to his
Instead, the ALJ considered the form "in conjunction with the
treating relationship between Dr. Singh and the claimant." Tr. 25. The ALJ concluded that "as a
result of such relationship, Dr. Singh is motivated to complete such forms in a manner most
beneficial to the claimant." Id.
An ALJ is permitted to disregard the opinion of a treating physician when there is
persuasive contrary evidence. Bishop v. Comm'r o/Soc. Sec., 583 Fed. Appx. 65, 67 (4th Cir.
2014) (per curiam); Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 35 (4th Cir. 1992). An ALJ's assessment of
a physician's implied motivation is not sufficient. In support of discounting Dr. Singh's opinion
on the basis of bias, the ALJ does not Gite to persuasive contrary evidence. The ALJ only notes
that a cardiologist found in 2014 that Plaintiff had no active signs of ischemia, and that the
format of Dr. Singh's evaluation was contributory evidence of his bias. Tr. at 25. Because of this,
the ALJ does not have sufficient basis for giving the treating physician's opinion no weight.
The decision of whether to reverse and remand for benefits or reverse and remand for a
new hearing is one which "lies within the sound discretion of the district court." Edwards v.
Bowen, 672 F. Supp. 230, 236 (E.D.N.C. 1987). Remand, rather than reversal, is required when
the Court is precluded from "meaningful review." Radfordv. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 296 (4th Cir.
2013) (citing Kastner v. Astrue, 697 F .3d 642, 648 (7th Cir. 2012) ("If a decision lacks
evidentiary support or is so poorly articulated as to prevent meaningful review, a remand is
required.") (internal quotation marks omitted)). Therefore, the result of the ALJ's failure to
weigh the above evidence in accordance with the principles discussed was not harmless error and
the matter should be remanded for further consideration.
Accordingly, plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 20] is GRANTED and
defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings [DE 22] is DENIED. The decision of the ALJ
is REMANDED to the Commissioner for further proceedings consistent with the foregoing.
SO ORDERED, this
day of September, 2017.
~( / ,
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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