MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER that Plaintiff's 17 MOTION for Summary Judgment is DENIED and Commissioner's 20 MOTION for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Signed by Magistrate Judge W. Carleton Metcalf on 6/3/2021. (rhf) Modified text on 6/3/2021 (rhf).
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
CALVIN JERMAINE NICHOLS,
ANDREW M. SAUL,
Acting Commissioner of the Social
This matter is before the Court on the parties’ cross motions for summary
judgment. Docs. 17 & 20.1
In October of 2016, Plaintiff Calvin Jermaine Nichols (“Plaintiff”) filed
an application seeking supplemental security benefits. Transcript of the
Administrative Record (“AR”) at 198.
On March 1, 2019, following an administrative hearing at which Plaintiff
appeared and testified, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an
unfavorable decision. AR at 12-26. That decision is the Commissioner’s final
decision for purposes of this action.
The parties have consented to the disposition of this matter by a United States
Magistrate Judge. Docs. 15 & 16.
The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the severe impairments of borderline
intellectual functioning and a learning disability. AR at 17. Additionally, the
ALJ found that Plaintiff had “moderate” limitations in the following categories
of mental functioning: (1) understanding, remembering, or applying
information; (2) interacting with others; (3) concentrating, persisting, or
maintaining pace; and (4) adapting or managing oneself. AR at 19-20. The ALJ
further found that Plaintiff had the RFC to:
perform the full range of work at all exertional levels
with the following non-exertional limitations: he is
incapable of climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; he
must avoid all exposure to hazards, including
unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts; he
is incapable of operating a motor vehicle for work; he
is incapable of traveling for work; he is able to
understand, remember, and carry out simple
instructions and tasks and work at a consistent pace
throughout the workday at simple tasks but not at a
production rate pace where each task must be
completed within a strict time deadline or within high
quota demands; he is able to make occasional, simple
work-related decisions in a job that involves only
occasional changes in a routine work setting; he is able
to sustain concentration and persist at simple tasks up
to 2 hours at a time with normal breaks during an 8hour workday; he is capable of occasional, brief
interaction with the general public, co-workers, and
supervisors; and he would be off-task up to 10% of the
workday in addition to regularly scheduled breaks due
to the combined effect of his impairments.
AR at 20-21.
Applying this RFC, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could perform representative
jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy and therefore
that Plaintiff had “not been under a disability…since October 20, 2016, the
date the application was filed.” AR at 25.
Plaintiff’s Allegations of Error
Plaintiff contends that the ALJ’s determination that he has moderate
limitations in the functional areas of (1) understanding, remembering, or
applying information; and (2) concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace is
not supported by substantial evidence. Additionally, Plaintiff asserts that,
when developing Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ failed
to consider how Plaintiff’s limitations affect his ability to sustain work
activities on a regular and continuing basis.
Standard of Review
A claimant has the burden of proving that he or she suffers from a
disability, which is defined as a medically determinable physical or mental
impairment lasting at least 12 months that prevents the claimant from
engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1505; 416.905. The
regulations require the Commissioner to evaluate each claim for benefits using
a five-step sequential analysis. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. The burden
rests on the claimant through the first four steps to prove disability. Monroe
v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If the claimant is successful at
these steps, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove at step five
that the claimant can perform other work. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 635
(4th Cir. 2015); Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180.
Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), judicial review of a final decision of the
Commissioner denying disability benefits is limited to whether substantial
evidence exists in the record as a whole to support the Commissioner’s
findings, and whether the Commissioner’s final decision applies the proper
legal standards. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). When a
federal district court reviews the Commissioner’s decision, it does not “re-weigh
conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its]
judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589
(4th Cir. 1996). Accordingly, the issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff
is disabled but, rather, whether the Commissioner’s decision that he is not
disabled is supported by substantial evidence in the record and based on the
correct application of the law. Id.
A. Plaintiff’s Moderate Limitations
With respect to understanding, remembering, or applying information,
the ALJ found that Plaintiff had moderate limitations based on Plaintiff’s
ability to graduate high school “with largely average grades” and a class rank
of 145 out of 227, Plaintiff’s testimony that he was learning to cook from his
grandmother, notes from Goodwill Industries workforce training that showed
Plaintiff was making “strides in retaining more information than he had in the
past,” and a psychological consultative evaluation. AR at 19.
Plaintiff argues that the notes from Goodwill Industries are
contradictory (i.e., that some show progress while others do not and indicate
that he was washing dishes rather than cooking). Additionally, Plaintiff
asserts that information in the record indicates that Plaintiff received a
“special education diploma” (rather than graduating).
However, it appears that the ALJ reviewed the entirety of both the
Goodwill Industries and school records when making his findings. AR at 2223. As noted above, it is not appropriate for this Court to reweigh such
evidence. The undersigned therefore finds that substantial evidence supports
the ALJ’s determination that Plaintiff had moderate limitations in the
functional area of understanding, remembering, or applying information.
Similarly, when considering Plaintiff’s limitations in concentrating,
persisting, or maintaining pace, the ALJ cited Plaintiff’s ability to graduate
from high school, the results of consultative psychological testing, and
Plaintiff’s testimony that he was able to persist on tasks that he enjoyed doing,
such as playing video games for several hours each day. AR at 20. The ALJ
reasoned that this combination of evidence indicated that Plaintiff had
moderate limitations in concentrating, persisting, or maintaining pace. The
undersigned also finds that substantial evidence supports this conclusion. See
e.g. Wooten v. Berryhill, No. 1:17cv190-DCK, 2018 WL 3014412, at *5
(W.D.N.C. June 15, 2018).
B. Plaintiff’s RFC
RFC is defined as “the most [a claimant] can do despite [his or her]
limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1). SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL
374184 (July 2, 1996), provides that an ALJ’s 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).” Id. at *7. The Commissioner is responsible
for determining the claimant’s RFC based on all the relevant evidence.
Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam).
In formulating an RFC, an ALJ is not required to discuss every piece of
evidence. See Reid v. Comm’r of Soc. Sec., 769 F.3d 861, 865 (4th Cir. 2014).
The ALJ is required, however, to build “an accurate and logical bridge from the
evidence to his conclusion” that Plaintiff’s RFC sufficiently accounts for his
limitations. See Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686, 694 (4th Cir. 2018); see also
Mayberry v. Berryhill, No. 5:17-cv-175-GCM, 2018 WL 3543085, at *3
(W.D.N.C. July 23, 2018) (“A failure to provide an adequate explanation
frustrates the ability of the Court to conduct meaningful review and determine
whether the ALJ’s decision is supported by substantial evidence.”); Darby v.
Berryhill, No. 1:16cv366-RJC, 2018 WL 310136, at * (W.D.N.C. Jan. 5, 2018)
(“if the ALJ shows her work, then the Court will most likely find substantial
evidence supporting her ultimate conclusion”).
Here, Plaintiff argues that the ALJ failed to consider the effect of his
moderate limitations on his ability to sustain work for eight hours a day, five
days a week. Doc. 17-1 at 9-10. In developing Plaintiff’s RFC however, the
ALJ relied on Plaintiff’s administrative hearing testimony in which Plaintiff
affirmatively responded that he believed, if Goodwill was able to find a job for
him, he could work on a eight hour a day/five day a week schedule. AR at 23
(citing AR at 42); see also id. (assigning some weight to the testimony of
Plaintiff’s father but explaining that Plaintiff’s father’s opinion regarding
Plaintiff’s ability to work “stands in contrast with the claimant’s testimony
acknowledging he thinks himself capable of working on a regular and
consistent basis if he could find a job”); AR at 24 (Plaintiff’s “testimony at the
hearing about thinking himself capable of performing work activities eight
hours a day five days a week take[s] precedence over these medical opinions”).
Accordingly, Plaintiff’s RFC includes findings regarding Plaintiff’s
ability to sustain work such that “[t]he court is not left to guess” at the
foundations for these findings. Pegg v. Berryhill, No. 1:16-cv-383-MOC, 2017
WL 3595487, at *3 (W.D.N.C. Aug. 21, 2017); see also Finney v. Berryhill, No.
5:16-cv-188-MR, 2018 WL 1175229, at *5 (W.D.N.C. March 6, 2018) (“where
the ALJ cites specific evidence in the record that supports claimant’s ability to
work despite her moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence or pace,
including specific facts about the claimant’s activities of daily living and
relevant medical testimony and evidence, this satisfies the requirements of
Mascio”) (citing Williamson v. Colvin, No. 5:15-cv-70-GCM, 2016 WL 4992101
(W.D.N.C. Sept. 16, 2016), aff’d, Williamson v. Berryhill, 692 F. App’x. 738 (4th
Cir. 2017)); see also Plummer v. Astrue, No. 5:11CV006-RLV-DSC, 2011 WL
7938431, at *5 (W.D.N.C. Sept. 26, 2011) (“The claimant bears the burden of
providing evidence establishing the degree to which her impairments limit her
RFC”), report and recommendation adopted, No. 5:11-CV-00006-RLV, 2012
WL 1858844 (W.D.N.C. May 22, 2012), aff’d, 487 Fed. App’x 795 (4th Cir. 2012).
For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment
(Doc. 17) is DENIED, and the Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment
(Doc. 20) is GRANTED.
Signed: June 3, 2021
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