Crenshaw v. Colvin

Filing 16

ORDER granting 11 Motion for Summary Judgment; denying 14 Motion for Summary Judgment. The decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and the case is hereby REMANDED for further administrative proceedings consistent with this opinion. Signed by District Judge Martin Reidinger on 03/12/2018. (brl)

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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA CHARLOTTE DIVISION DOCKET NO. 3:16-CV-710-MR CAREY A. CRENSHAW, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) vs. ) ) NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ) Acting Commissioner of Social ) Security ) ) Defendant. ) _______________________________ ) MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 11] and the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 14]. I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND The Plaintiff, Carey A. Crenshaw (“Plaintiff”), asserts that his degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, history of left and right quadriceps tendon ruptures, history of alcohol dependence, and mood disorder constitute severe mental and physical impairments under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) rendering him disabled. On August 10, 2012, the Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security benefits under Title XVI of the Act, alleging an onset date of July 25, 2012. [Transcript (“T.”) at 215]. The Plaintiff’s application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [T. at 112, 119]. Upon Plaintiff’s request, a hearing was held on January 26, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [T. at 37-61]. Present at the hearing were the Plaintiff; Melissa Wilson, the Plaintiff’s non-attorney representative; and a vocational expert (“VE”). [Id.]. At the hearing, Plaintiff amended his alleged date of onset to May 10, 2013. [T. at 41]. On March 18, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision, wherein the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. [T. at 22-32]. On August 11, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff’s request for review [T. at 1], thereby making the ALJ’s decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). II. STANDARD OF REVIEW The Court’s review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner’s decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). “When examining [a Social Security Administration] disability determination, a reviewing court is required to 2 uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ’s factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm’r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “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) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ,” the Court defers to the ALJ’s decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[t]he record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013). 3 III. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS A “disability” entitling a claimant to benefits under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is “[the] 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration regulations set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). “If an applicant’s claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps.” Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first four steps. Id. At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant’s application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the claimant. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920). If not, the case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, 4 which significantly limit the claimant’s ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is established and the claimant is not disabled. Id. At step three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the claimant’s impairments meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an administrative assessment of “the most” a claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing basis” notwithstanding the claimant’s medically determinable impairments and the extent to which those impairments affect the claimant’s ability to perform work-related functions. SSR 96-8p; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c); 404.943(c); 416.945. At step four, the claimant must show that his or her limitations prevent the claimant from performing his or her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634. If the claimant can still perform his or her past work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. Otherwise, the case progresses to the fifth step where the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that, given the claimant’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, the claimant can perform alternative 5 work which exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Id.; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006). “The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant’s limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her burden at step five, the claimant is not disabled and the application for benefits must be denied. Id. Otherwise, the claimant is entitled to benefits. In this case, the ALJ rendered a determination adverse to the Plaintiff at the fifth step. IV. THE ALJ’S DECISION At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged amended onset date, May 10, 2013. [T. at 24]. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has severe impairments including degenerative disc disease, osteoarthritis, history of left and right quadriceps tendon ruptures, history of alcohol dependence, and mood disorder. [Id.]. At step three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the Listings. [Id.]. The ALJ then determined that the Plaintiff, notwithstanding his impairments, has the RFC: [T]o perform light work (lifting and carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, as defined in 6 20 CFR 416.967(b)) except that he needs a sit/stand option that allows him to sit 30 minutes and stand as needed up to 10 minutes. He could occasionally balance and he uses a cane to ambulate. However, he should not climb ladders. He is capable of simple routine repetitive tasks in a stable environment at a nonproductive pace with occasional interpersonal interaction. [Id. at 26]. The ALJ identified Plaintiff’s past relevant work as a janitor/ maintenance. [Id. at 31]. The ALJ observed, however, that “[g]iven his current residual functional capacity,” “the claimant could not return to his past relevant work.” [Id.]. Accordingly, at step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. [Id. at 30]. With the Plaintiff having carried his burden through the first four steps, the ALJ then assessed whether, at step five, the Commissioner could meet her burden of showing the availability of jobs Plaintiff is able to do, given his RFC. [Id. at 31-2]. Based upon the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff’s age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff is capable of performing other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he was able to perform, including wiper, marker, and final inspector. [Id.]. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Plaintiff was not “disabled” as defined by the Social Security Act from May 10, 2013, the 7 alleged onset date, through March 18, 2015, the date of the ALJ’s decision. [Id. at 32]. V. DISCUSSION1 In this appeal, the Plaintiff presents three arguments as grounds for reversal of the ALJ’s decision. First, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ erred in failing to provide a function-by-function analysis of Plaintiff’s mental limitations in the RFC assessment as required by SSR 96-8p. [Doc. 12 at 5]. Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ erred in failing to give “good reasons” for rejecting the opinion of one of Plaintiff’s treating physicians. [Id.] Third, Plaintiff contends the ALJ erred in failing to give legally sufficient reasons supported by substantial evidence for the ALJ’s credibility determination. [Id.]. The Plaintiff argues these errors require remand. The Defendant, on the other hand, asserts the ALJ’s determinations regarding Plaintiff’s RFC, the reasons for the weights assigned to the opinions of Plaintiff’s treating sources, and the credibility determination were supported by substantial evidence and reached through the application of the correct legal standards. [See Doc. 15]. The Court turns to Plaintiff’s first assigned error. Rather than set forth a separate summary of the facts in this case, the Court has incorporated the relevant facts into its legal analysis. 1 8 Social Security Ruling 96-8p explains how adjudicators should assess residual functional capacity. The Ruling instructs that the RFC “assessment must first identify the individual’s functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions” listed in the regulations.2 SSR 96-8p; see also Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015) (noting 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) (citation omitted). When a claimant’s claim is based on severe mental health impairments, the Social Security Rules and Regulations require a much more in-depth review and analysis of the claimant’s past mental health history. The Regulations make plain that “[p]articular problems are often involved in evaluating mental impairments in individuals who have long histories of … prolonged outpatient care with supportive therapy and The functions listed in the regulations include the claimant’s (1) physical abilities, “such as sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling, or other physical functions (including manipulative or postural functions, such as reaching, handling, stooping or crouching);” (2) mental abilities, “such as limitations in understanding, remembering, and carrying out instructions, and in responding appropriately to supervision, coworkers, and work pressures in a work setting;” and (3) other work-related abilities affected by “impairment(s) of vision, hearing or other senses, and impairment(s) which impose environmental restrictions.” 20 C.F.R. § 416.945. 2 9 medication.” 20 C.F.R. § 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P, § 12.00(E). The Regulations, therefore, set forth a mechanism for this type of review and documentation, known as the “special technique,” to assist ALJs in assessing a claimant’s mental RFC. See SSR 96-8P; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a, 416.920a. With regard to mental health issues, “[t]he determination of mental RFC is crucial to the evaluation of your capacity to do [substantial gainful activity] when your impairment(s) does not meet or equal the criteria of the listings, but is nevertheless severe.” 20 C.F.R. § 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P, § 12.00(A). Therefore, the determination of mental RFC, as noted above, is accomplished through the use of the aforementioned “special technique.” Under the special technique, we must first evaluate your pertinent symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings to determine whether you have a medically determinable mental impairment(s)…. If we determine that you have a medically determinable mental impairment(s), we must specify the symptoms, signs, and laboratory findings that substantiate the presence of the impairment(s) and document our findings[.] 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b). For this reason, Rule 96-8p explains as follows: The RFC assessment must include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, citing specific medical facts (e.g., laboratory findings) and nonmedical evidence (e.g., daily activities, observations). In assessing RFC, the adjudicator must discuss the individual’s ability to 10 perform sustained work activities in an ordinary work setting on a regular and continuing basis (i.e., 8 hours a day, for 5 days a week, or an equivalent work schedule), and describe the maximum amount of each work-related activity the individual can perform based on the evidence available in the case record. SSR 96-8p. “Only after that may RFC be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” Id. In this case, the ALJ failed to conduct any function-by-function analysis of Plaintiff’s mental health limitations and work-related abilities prior to expressing his RFC assessment. [See T. at 25-6]. At step three, in deciding Plaintiff’s mental impairments did not meet or medically equal the “Paragraph B” criteria3 in listing 12.04 (depressive, bipolar and related disorders), the ALJ made findings on Plaintiff’s limitations and difficulties relative to activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. [Id. at 25]. The ALJ then noted: The limitations identified in the “paragraph B” criteria are not a residual functional capacity assessment but are used to rate the severity of mental impairments at steps 2 and 3 of the sequential evaluation process. The mental residual functional capacity assessment used at steps 4 and 5 of the sequential evaluation process requires a more detailed assessment by Paragraph B of these listings provides the functional criteria assessed, in conjunction with a rating scale, to evaluate how a claimant’s mental disorder limits his functioning. These criteria represent the areas of mental functioning a person uses in a work setting. They are: Understand, remember, or apply information; interact with others; concentrate, persist, or maintain pace; and adapt or manage oneself. 20 C.F.R. § 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P, § 12.00(A). 3 11 itemizing various functions contained in the broad categories found in paragraph B of the adult mental disorders listings in 12.00 of the Listing of Impairments (SSR 96-8p). Therefore, the following residual functional capacity assessment reflects the degree of limitation the undersigned has found in the “paragraph B” mental function analysis. [T. at 25-6 (emphasis added)]. By finding in step three that Plaintiff suffers from mild restriction in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in social functioning; and moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence or pace, the ALJ found that facts exist which correlate with a limitation on Plaintiff’s ability to carry out the areas of mental functioning listed in Paragraph B. In formulating Plaintiff’s RFC, however, the ALJ failed to explain whether these limitations translated into any actual functional limitations. It appears the ALJ sought to account for Plaintiff’s “moderate difficulties” in “concentration, persistence or pace,” by restricting Plaintiff to “simple routine repetitive tasks in a stable work environment at a nonproductive pace….” [T. at 26]. A restriction to simple, repetitive tasks at a non-production pace, however, does not “account for a limitation in concentration, persistence or pace.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 638; see also Kitrell v. Colvin, No. 5:14-cv-163-RJC, 2016 WL 1048070, at *4 (W.D.N.C. March 6, 2016) (Conrad, J.); Scruggs v. Colvin, No. 3:14-cv-466-MOC, 2015 WL 2250890, at *5-6 (W.D.N.C. May 13, 2015) 12 (Cogburn, J.). Furthermore, with respect to the provision in the RFC limiting the Plaintiff to “occasional interpersonal interaction,” the ALJ fails to explain the basis for this restriction or how it accounts for Plaintiff’s moderate limitations in social functioning. A reviewing court cannot be “left to guess about how the ALJ arrived at his conclusions on [a plaintiff’s] ability to perform relevant functions and indeed, remain uncertain as to what the ALJ intended.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 637. It is the duty of the ALJ to “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). “Without this explanation, the reviewing court cannot properly evaluate whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard or whether substantial evidence supports his decisions, and the only recourse is to remand the matter for additional investigation and explanations.” Mills v. Berryhill, No. 1:16-cv-25-MR, 2017 WL 957542, at *4 (W.D.N.C. Mar. 10, 2017) (Reidinger, J.) (citation omitted). See Patterson v. Comm’r, 846 F.3d 656, 662 (4th Cir. 2017) (“Without documentation of the special technique, it is difficult to discern how the ALJ treated relevant and conflicting evidence.”). For these reasons, this matter will be remanded to the ALJ so that he may comply with the proper procedure for assessing the Plaintiff’s mental impairments before expressing an RFC determination. See Mascio, 780 13 F.3d at 636; Patterson, 846 F.3d at 659, 662. Upon remand, it will be crucial that the ALJ carefully perform a function-by-function analysis of Plaintiff’s mental limitations and work abilities, and thereafter “build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Monroe, 826 F.3d at 189 (citation omitted). A narrative assessment describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, as required by SSR 96-8p, is essential and should account for Plaintiff’s limitations in social functioning; activities of daily living; and concentration, persistence or pace and include an assessment of whether Plaintiff can perform work-related tasks for a full work day. See Scruggs, 2015 WL 2250890, at *5 (applying Mascio to find an ALJ must not only provide an explanation of how a plaintiff’s mental limitations affect her ability to perform work-related functions, but also her ability to perform them for a full workday). The Court has also carefully reviewed Plaintiff’s other assignments of error and finds them to be without merit. VII. CONCLUSION For the reasons stated, the Court will remand this case for further administrative proceedings. On remand, the ALJ should conduct a proper function-by-function analysis of the Plaintiff’s mental residual functional 14 capacity in accordance with and evidencing use of the “special technique” set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a and Rule 96-8p. ORDER IT IS, THEREFORE, ORDERED that the Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 11] is GRANTED and the Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 14] is DENIED. Pursuant to the power of this Court to enter judgment affirming, modifying or reversing the decision of the Commissioner under Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the decision of the Commissioner is REVERSED and the case is hereby REMANDED for further administrative proceedings consistent with this opinion. A judgment shall be entered simultaneously herewith. IT IS SO ORDERED. Signed: March 12, 2018 15

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