United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
TERESA C. MAINES, Plaintiff,
CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
L. PATRICK AULD, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Teresa C. Maines, brought this action via Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act") to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Commissioner of Social Security, denying an award of Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The Court has before it the certified administrative record (cited herein as "Tr. __") and the parties have filed cross-motions for judgment (Docket Entries 10, 15). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging a disability onset date of March 15, 2006. (Tr. 122-30.) Upon denial of the applications initially (Tr. 65-66, 69-73) and on reconsideration (Tr. 67-68, 76-84), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 86). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared at the hearing. (Tr. 26-64.) The ALJ ruled Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 10-25.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. 1-3.)
In rendering that disability ruling, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the... Act through December 31, 2011.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since March 15, 2006, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq. And 416.071 et seq. ).
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: degenerative disk disease of the lumbar spine, sciatica, osteoarthritis of the right knee, asthma, status post-left knee replacement (2001), and obesity (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c)).
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 CFR 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.925 and 416.926).
5.... [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a), except she requires work which allows for the option to sit or stand at will, specifically the option every 20-30 minutes to stand a few minutes before resuming seated position. In addition, she should avoid hazardous environments such as hazardous climbing and exposure to dangerous moving equipment; she should avoid exposure to excessive amounts of dust, fumes, smoke, and industrial irritants; and her ability to do postural activities such as climbing stairs, stooping, kneeling, and bending are to be no more than on an occasional basis.
Given that residual functional capacity ("RFC") and the VE's testimony, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could not return to her past relevant work, but that a significant number of jobs existed in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 23-24.) Accordingly, the ALJ decided that Plaintiff had not suffered a "disability, " under the Act, at any time from the alleged onset date through the date of decision. (Tr. 24.)
Federal law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits." Hines v. Barnhart , 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, "the scope of... review of [such a] decision... is extremely limited." Frady v. Harris , 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "The courts are not to try the case de novo." Oppenheim v. Finch , 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, "a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hines , 453 F.3d at 561 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted).
"Substantial evidence means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan , 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales , 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Mastro v. Apfel , 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence." Hunter , 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).
"In reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner]." Mastro , 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the ALJ)." Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). "The issue before [the Court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chater , 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
In confronting that issue, the Court must note that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, " Hall v. Harris , 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context, "disability" means 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, '" id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)). "To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration has... promulgated... detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, and work experience in addition to [the claimant's] medical condition." Hall , 658 F.2d at 264. "These regulations establish a sequential evaluation process' to determine whether a claimant is disabled." Id . (internal citations omitted).
This sequential evaluation process ("SEP") has up to five steps: "The claimant (1) must not be engaged in substantial gainful activity, ' i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a severe' impairment that (3) meets or exceeds the listings' of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past work or (5) any other work." Albright v. Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin. , 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in the SEP forecloses an award and ends the inquiry. For example, "[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied." Bennett v. Sullivan , 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).
On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first three steps, "the claimant is disabled." Mastro , 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., "[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC')." Id. at 179. Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can "perform past relevant work"; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, whereupon the ALJ must decide "whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job." Hall , ...