Hampton v. Colvin

Filing 19

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER denying Pltf's 14 Motion for Summary Judgment; granting Deft's 16 Motion for Summary Judgment; and affirming the Commissioner's decision. Signed by Magistrate Judge David S. Cayer on 10/10/2017. (ejb)

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA ASHEVILLE DIVISION CIVIL NO. 1:17-CV-19-DSC MARY RICKMAN HAMPTON, ) Plaintiff, ) ) vs. ) ) NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ) Acting Commissioner of Social ) Security Administration, ) Defendant. ) ) MEMORANDUM AND ORDER THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff’s “Motion for Summary Judgment” (document #14) and Defendant’s “Motion for Summary Judgment” (document #16), as well as the parties’ briefs and exhibits. The parties have consented to Magistrate Judge jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and these Motions are ripe for disposition. Having considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, the Court finds that Defendant’s decision to deny Plaintiff Social Security benefits is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court will deny Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment; grant Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment; and affirm the Commissioner’s decision. I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY The procedural history is not in dispute. The Court adopts the procedural history as stated in the parties’ briefs. Plaintiff filed the present action on January 16, 2017. She assigns error to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)’s formulation of her mental Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”).1 See Plaintiff’s “Memorandum ...” at 3-11 (document #14-1). Specifically, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ erred in finding moderate impairments in her mental and social functioning, rather than “marked” impairments as opined by Dr. Mary H. Berg, the consultative psychological expert. Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ failed to account for her moderate difficulty in concentration, persistence or pace in his formulation of her RFC. The parties’ cross-Motions are ripe for disposition. II. STANDARD OF REVIEW The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. (4th Cir. 1990); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 see also Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The District Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). As the Social Security Act provides, “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. The Social Security Regulations define “Residual Functional Capacity” as “what [a claimant] can still do despite his limitations.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a). The Commissioner is required to “first assess the nature and extent of [the claimant’s] physical limitations and then determine [the claimant’s] Residual Functional Capacity for work activity on a regular and continuing basis.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(b). 1 2 Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986), quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), the Fourth Circuit defined “substantial evidence” thus: Substantial evidence has been defined as being “more than a scintilla and do[ing] more than creat[ing] a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” See also Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) (“We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence”). The Fourth Circuit has long emphasized that it is not for a reviewing court to weigh the evidence again, nor to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, assuming the Commissioner’s final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d at 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345; and Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d at 775. Indeed, this is true even if the reviewing court disagrees with the outcome – so long as there is “substantial evidence” in the record to support the final decision below. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982). III. DISCUSSION OF CLAIM The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff became “disabled” at any time as that term is defined for Social Security purposes.2 2Under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 301, et seq., the term “disability” is defined as an: inability 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 12 months . . . . Pass v. Chater, 65 F. 3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). 3 Plaintiff first assigns error to the ALJ’s evaluation of Dr. Berg’s consultative opinion. The ALJ noted Dr. Berg’s opinion that Plaintiff would have marked difficulties understanding, retaining, and following instructions; sustaining attention to perform simple repetitive tasks; relating to others including co-workers and supervisors; and tolerating stress associated with dayto-day work activity due to her chronic severe depression and anxiety. (Tr. 19, 374-378). Based upon a review of the entire record, the ALJ gave Dr. Berg’s opinion little weight (Tr. 27). While Dr. Berg indicated that there were limitations resulting from physical impairments, the record showed that Plaintiff had no severe physical impairments. Dr. Berg based her opinion almost entirely on subjective information from Plaintiff. Dr. Berg’s opinion was inconsistent with the other medical evidence, including findings from treating sources. (Tr. 27-28). The ALJ’s decision to give little weight to Dr. Berg’s opinion is supported by substantial evidence. Plaintiff next challenges the ALJ’s formulation of her RFC. 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 at *2. However, it is the claimant’s burden to establish her RFC by demonstrating how those impairments impact 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-00006, 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, 4 2102), aff’d, 487 F. App’x 795 (4th Cir. Nov. 6, 2012). The Fourth Circuit has 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.” Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (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. It is only after that function-by-function analysis has been completed that RFC may "be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” Id. The Court finds that substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff could perform work at all exertional levels “limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, performed in a work environment free of fast paced production requirements, involving only simple work related decisions, with few, if any, work place changes; and with only occasional interaction with the public and coworkers.” (Tr. 20). See Mascio, 780 F.3d at 638 (“[t]he 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”); Jarek v. Colvin, 3:14cv620-FDWDSC, 2015 WL 10097516, at *5 (W.D.N.C. Sept. 4, 2015) aff'd by 2016 WL 626566 (W.D.N.C. Feb. 16, 2016) aff'd by 2017 WL 129024 (4th Circuit Jan. 13, 2017) (moderate limitation in pace adequately addressed by “limitation to simple, routine, repetitive tasks not at an assembly line pace”). The ALJ’s RFC determination is supported by Plaintiff’s testimony, medical records and treatment history. To the extent that Plaintiff is challenging the ALJ’s credibility determination, the 5 Court finds that the ALJ applied the correct legal standard and her credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence. Although the medical records establish that Plaintiff experienced pain and mental and emotional difficulties to some extent, as the Fourth Circuit has noted, it is the ALJ’s responsibility, not the Court’s, “to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence.” 1056-57. Seacrist, 538 F.2d at Substantial evidence exists to support the ALJ’s assessment of the medical records, Plaintiff’s credibility, and his ultimate determination that Plaintiff was not disabled. IV. ORDER NOW THEREFORE, IT IS ORDERED: 1. Plaintiff’s “Motion For Summary Judgment” (document #14) is DENIED; Defendant’s “Motion for Summary Judgment” (document #16) is GRANTED; and the Commissioner’s decision is AFFIRMED. 2. The Clerk is directed to send copies of this Memorandum and Order to counsel for the parties. SO ORDERED. Signed: October 10, 2017 6

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