Crenshaw v. Colvin
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)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
DOCKET NO. 3:16-CV-710-MR
CAREY A. CRENSHAW,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,
Acting Commissioner of Social
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].
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).
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
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).
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
[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
alleged onset date, through March 18, 2015, the date of the ALJ’s decision.
[Id. at 32].
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.
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)
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.
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. §§
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)….
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
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).
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)
(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
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.
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
capacity in accordance with and evidencing use of the “special technique”
set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a and Rule 96-8p.
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
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