United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, Magistrate Judge.
Plaintiff, Robin Durham, brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under, respectively, Titles II and XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.
I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY
Plaintiff filed her applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income on March 14, 2006, alleging a disability onset date of February 3, 2006. (Tr. 119-126, 127-130.) Her applications were denied initially (Tr. at 78, 79) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 80, 81). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 117-18.) Plaintiff, along with her attorney and a vocational expert ("VE"), attended the subsequent hearing on January 13, 2009. (Tr. at 14.) The ALJ ultimately determined that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 26.)
In rendering his disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings:
1. The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2009.
2. The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 3, 2006, the alleged onset date (20 CFR 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971 et seq. ).
3. The claimant has the following severe impairments: neck and back problems and depression and anxiety (20 CFR 404.1521 et seq. and 416.921 et seq. ).
4. The claimant 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. After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). Light work involves lifting no more than 20 pounds at a time with frequent lifting or carrying of objects weighing up to 10 pounds, [and] standing or walking 6 hours in an 8 hour workday, with normal breaks. Even though the weight lifted may be very little, a job is in this category when it requires a good deal of walking or standing, or when it involves sitting most of the time with some pushing and pulling on arm or leg controls. To be considered capable of performing a full or wide range of light work, you must have the ability to do substantially all of these activities. If someone can do light work, we determined [sic] that he or she can also do sedentary work, unless there are additional limiting factors such as loss of fine dexterity or inability to set for long periods of time (20 CFR § 404.1567b). She can perform climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching or crawling motions, but no more than frequent motion of the neck. She has no other visual, manipulative, communicative, or environmental restrictions. Due to her depression and anxiety, the claimant is limited to simple, repetitive, routine tasks.
(Tr. at 16, 18.)
The ALJ then considered Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and the above residual functional capacity ("RFC"), along with the VE's testimony regarding these factors, and determined that, although Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past relevant work, she could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. at 24-25.) The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not under a "disability, " as defined in the Act, from her alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Tr. at 26.)
On December 15, 2009, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiff's request for review of the ALJ's decision. In conducting its review, the Appeals Council found that the ALJ "never asked the vocational expert to consider the exact residual functional capacity that is contained in finding 5 of the decision[, ] thus making the decision, as written, inaccurate." (Tr. at 8.) However, the Council also found that hypothetical question at the hearing posed an RFC that was, in fact, more restrictive than the RFC stated in the decision. Specifically, the question contained "restrictions related to a sit/stand option and frequent movement of the neck" which were not included in the RFC at finding 5. Therefore, the Appeals Council concluded that Plaintiff "remains capable of performing the jobs named" by the vocational expert. (Tr. at 8.) Because Plaintiff submitted no evidence to challenge this conclusion during the review period, the Appeals Council's decision became the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review on March 25, 2010. (Tr. at 3-6).
II. LEGAL STANDARD
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 if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation 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. 1993) (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 citations 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 court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ]." 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 ALJ." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing 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 undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). 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)).
"The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)). "Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy." Id.
A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation 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 the first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets or equals a "listed impairment" at step three, "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, " then "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, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite the claimant's impairments." Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, 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 ...