Dunn v. Colvin

Filing 16

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER denying Plaintiff's 12 Motion for Summary Judgment and granting Defendant's 14 Motion for Summary Judgment, and the Commissioner's decision is affirmed. Signed by Magistrate Judge David S. Cayer on 8/9/2017. (nvc)

Download PDF
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA STATESVILLE DIVISION CIVIL NO. 5:17-CV-8-DSC JENNIFER ANN DUNN, 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 Judgment on the Pleadings” (document #12) and Defendant’s “Motion for Summary Judgment” (document #14), 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 now 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 disability benefits is supported by substantial evidence. Accordingly, the Court will deny Plaintiff’s Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings; 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 9, 2017. She assigns error to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ)’s evaluation of her dyshidrotic eczema, formulation of her Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”), and determination that she could perform her past relevant work.1 See Plaintiff’s “Memorandum ...” at 3-12 (document #13). 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. 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 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 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 Plaintiff contends that the ALJ should have found her dyshidrotic eczema to be severe because it significantly limited her physical ability to perform basic work related functions. The ALJ found that Plaintiff only sporadically sought treatment for eczema and reported improvement 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 following treatment. (Tr. 13, 315, 322, 390, 450-51, 475, and 477). There was no evidence that Plaintiff experienced any significant limitations resulting from eczema. (Tr. 14). Substantial evidence supports the ALJ’s conclusion that Plaintiff’s eczema did not cause more than a minimal limitation in her ability to work. (Tr. 13-14). 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, 2102), aff’d, 487 F. App’x 795 (4th Cir. Nov. 6, 2012). The Fourth Circuit recently 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 4 may "be expressed in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” Id. The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the RFC “to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) except that she could only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; frequently climb and balance; and have no concentrated exposure to hazards.” (Tr. 15). The ALJ’s RFC determination here is supported by substantial evidence including Plaintiff’s testimony, medical records and treatment history. To the extent that Plaintiff is challenging the ALJ’s credibility determination, a review of the ALJ’s decision reveals that he applied the correct legal standard and his credibility determination is supported by substantial evidence. Finally, Plaintiff challenges the ALJ’s determination that she could perform her past relevant work. She argues that the ALJ was required to consult a Vocational Expert (V.E.) or the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”). This argument fails because the ALJ relied on a state agency expert’s evaluation of Plaintiff’s past relevant work, which included the DOT description. (Tr. 15-19). Davis v. Astrue, No. 2:10-cv-30, 2011 WL 399956, at *28 (N.D. W. Va. Jan. 11, 2011) (Mag. Rep. & Rec.) (unpublished) adopted 2011 WL 442118 (N.D. W. Va. Feb. 2, 2011) (ALJ’s decision reasonably relied on the DOT for evidence of the requirements of past employment, even where the ALJ did not provide a pinpoint citation to the DOT in support). 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. 5 IV. ORDER NOW THEREFORE, IT IS ORDERED: 1. Plaintiff’s “Motion For Judgment on the Pleadings” (document #12) is DENIED; Defendant’s “Motion for Summary Judgment” (document #14) 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: August 9, 2017 6

Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.

Why Is My Information Online?