Seagle v. Colvin
ORDER that the decision of the Commissioner, denying the relief sought by Plaintiff, is VACATED and this case is REMANDED; granting 11 Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; denying 13 Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. Signed by Senior Judge Graham Mullen on 11/06/17. (emw) Modified text on 11/6/2017 (emw).
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
DOCKET NO. 1:16-cv-313
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner
of Social Security,
THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc.
No. 11) and Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13). Having carefully
considered such motions and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following findings,
conclusions, and Order.
FINDINGS AND CONCLUSIONS
Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits on
February 28, 2012, alleging a disability onset date of April 24, 2009. Plaintiff’s claim was denied
both initially and on reconsideration. On July 23, 2014, the Appeals Council remanded Plaintiff’s
case. The ALJ held hearings on February 23, 2015 and April 13, 2015. On May 28, 2015, the ALJ
issued a decision which was unfavorable to Plaintiff, from which Plaintiff appealed to the Appeals
Council. Plaintiff’s request for review was denied and the ALJ’s decision affirmed by the Appeals
Council, making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”). Thereafter, Plaintiff timely filed this action.
In his decision, the ALJ first concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since April 24, 2009. (Tr. 25). At the second step, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff had the
following severe impairments: obesity, hypothyroidism, anemia, obstructive sleep apnea, mild
social anxiety, and mild depression. Id. At the third step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff did not
have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any of the listed
impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 27). The ALJ specifically found that
the Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties in
maintaining concentration, persistence or pace. (Tr. 28).
The ALJ then found that Plaintiff retained the residual functional capacity to perform a full
range of work at all exertional levels but with the following non-exertional limitations: “she can
occasionally climb ladders; must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards; and is limited to simple,
routine, repetitive tasks in a stable environment with occasional public contact.” (Tr. 29).
At the fourth step, the ALJ found that the claimant was unable to perform any past relevant
work (Tr. 33). However, at the fifth step, the ALJ concluded that there were jobs that exist in
significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff can perform, including packer, folder,
and assembler. (Tr. 34). Accordingly, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff was not disabled under the
Standard of Review
The only issues on review are whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal
standards and whether the Commissioner’s decision is supported by substantial evidence.
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir.
1990). Review by a federal court is not de novo, Smith v. Schwieker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir.
1986); rather, inquiry is limited to whether there was “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind
might accept as adequate to support a conclusion,” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 400. Even if the
undersigned were to find that a preponderance of the evidence weighed against the
Commissioner’s decision, the Commissioner’s decision would have to be affirmed if supported by
substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
Plaintiff argues, inter alia, that the ALJ’s RFC evaluation was insufficient to account for
her moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace.
The ALJ is solely responsible for assessing a claimant’s RFC. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c)
& 416.946(c). In making that assessment, the ALJ must consider the functional limitations
resulting from the claimant’s medically determinable impairments. SSR96-8p, available at 1996
WL 374184, at *2. The ALJ must also “include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence
supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts . . . and nonmedical evidence.” Id.
Plaintiff has the burden of establishing her RFC by showing how her impairments affect
her functioning. See 20 C.F.R. §§404.1512(c) & 416.912(c); see also, e.g., Stormo v. Barnhart,
377 F.3d 801, 806 (8th Cir. 2004) (“[t]he burden of persuasion . . . to demonstrate RFC remains
on the claimant, even when the burden of production shifts to the Commissioner at step five”);
Plummer v. Astrue, No. 5:11-cv-06-RLV-DSC, 2011 WL 7938431, at *5 (W.D.N.C. Sept. 26,
2011) (Memorandum and Recommendation) (“[t]he claimant bears the burden of providing
evidence establishing the degree to which her impairments limit her RFC”) (citing Stormo),
adopted, 2012 WL 1858844 (May 22, 2102), aff’d, 487 F. App’x 795 (4th Cir. Nov. 6, 2012).
In Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), the Fourth Circuit held that “remand
may be appropriate . . . where an ALJ fails to assess a claimant's capacity to perform relevant
functions, despite contradictory evidence in the record, or where other inadequacies in the ALJ's
analysis frustrate meaningful review.” 780 F.3d at 636 (quoting Cichocki v. Astrue, 729 F.3d 172,
177 (2d Cir. 2013)). This explicit function-by-function analysis is not necessary when functions
are irrelevant or uncontested.
In Mascio, the court also “agree[d] with other circuits that an ALJ does not account ‘for a
claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace by restricting the hypothetical
question to simple, routine tasks or unskilled work.’” 780 F.3d at 638 (quoting Winschel v.Comm'r
of Soc. Sec., 631 F.3d 1176, 1180 (11th Cir. 2011) (joining the Third, Seventh, and Eighth
Circuits)). “The ability to perform simple tasks differs from the ability to stay on pace. Only the
later limitation would account for a claimant’s limitation in concentration, persistence or pace.”
Applying those legal principles to the record here, the undersigned concludes that this
matter should be remanded for a new hearing. In his formulation of Plaintiff’s RFC, the ALJ
accounted for her moderate difficulties in maintaining concentration, persistence or pace, if at all,
with a limitation to “simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a stable environment with occasional public
contact.” (Tr. 29). Even if supported by substantial evidence, a limitation to simple tasks or
instructions does not “account for a limitation in concentration, persistence or pace.” 780 F.3d at
638. As in Mascio, “[p]erhaps the ALJ can explain why [Plaintiff’s] moderate limitation in
concentration, persistence or pace … does not translate into a limitation in [her] residual functional
capacity…. But because the ALJ gave no explanation, a remand is in order.” Id.
The undersigned has carefully reviewed the decision of the ALJ and Appeals Council, the
transcript of the proceedings, Plaintiff’s motion and briefs, Commissioner’s responsive pleadings,
and Plaintiff’s assignments of error. Because the ALJ did not properly assess Plaintiff’s residual
functional capacity, the case must be remanded. Accordingly, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary
Judgment will be granted, the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied, and
the decision of the Commissioner will be vacated.
IT IS, THEREFORE, ORDERED that
the decision of the Commissioner, denying the relief sought by Plaintiff, is
the Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) is GRANTED; and
the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) is DENIED.
Signed: November 6, 2017
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