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Emrich v. Colvin

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 2, 2015

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant

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Thomas D. Schroeder, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Cynthia Emrich brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for disability insurance benefits. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment. (Docs. 16, 18.) For the reasons set forth below, Emrich's motion will be denied, the Commissioner's motion will be granted, and the case will be dismissed.


Emrich filed her application for disability insurance benefits (" DIB" ) on June 23, 2009, claiming a period of disability commencing on January 1, 2003, and ending on December 31, 2005, the date she was last insured. (Tr. at 298--305.)[1] Her application was denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Id. at 159--60.) Thereafter, Emrich requested a de novo hearing on her claim before an administrative law judge (" ALJ" ). (Id. at 164.) On March 25, 2011, Emrich appeared at the requested hearing pro se, and the ALJ granted a continuance to give Emrich an opportunity to obtain counsel. (Id. at 122--57, 164).

On July 5, 2011, Emrich and her non-attorney representative appeared before the same ALJ for a hearing. (Id. at 96--121.) The ALJ ultimately issued a decision finding Emrich not disabled. (Id. at 164--71.) Emrich appealed to the Appeals Council, which, on December 26, 2012, remanded the case for a new hearing for further consideration of several issues not before this court. (Id. at 177--79.)

Accordingly, on March 22, 2013, Emrich appeared with her non-attorney representative and testified at a third hearing. (Id. at 55--95.) Following tat hearing, the ALJ once again found Emrich not disabled between her alleged onset date and December 31, 2005, her date last insured. (Id. at 46--47.) Emrich again appealed the decision. On September 13, 2013, the Appeals Council denied review, thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Id. at 7--11.)

Emrich filed her complaint with this court on November 14, 2013, seeking review of the Commissioner's decision. Emrich

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has filed a motion for judgment reversing the Commissioner, or alternatively remanding for rehearing. (Doc. 16.) The Commissioner has not responded but has filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, to which Emrich did not respond. (Doc. 18.) The time for further briefing has passed, and the motions are now ripe for resolution.


A. Standard of Review

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 an administrative] 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." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted) (internal brackets 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, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971)). " [I]t 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) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). " 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 (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (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, as adopted by the Commissioner]." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996)) (internal brackets omitted). " Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Social Security Commissioner or the ALJ]." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (quoting Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005)). The issue before this 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, 76 F.3d at 589.

In administrative proceedings, " [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)).[2]

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" 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. The claimant bears the burden as to the first four steps, but the Commissioner bears the burden as to the fifth step. Id. at 472--73.

In undertaking this sequential evaluation process, the five steps are considered sequentially, although a finding adverse to the claimant at either of the first two steps forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. In this regard, " [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).

If a claimant carries his burden at each of the first two steps and also meets his burden at step three of establishing an impairment that meets or equals an impairment listed in the regulations, the claimant is disabled, and there is no need to proceed to step four or five. See 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 analysis continues and the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (" RFC" ).[3] 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 based on that RFC, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which shifts the burden of proof and " requires the Commissioner 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 past work experience) to adjust to a new job." Hall, 658 F.2d at 264--65. If, at this step, the Commissioner cannot carry her " evidentiary

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burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community," the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.

B. Emrich's Challenges

In the present case, the ALJ found that Emrich had not engaged in " substantial gainful activity" since her alleged onset date. Emrich thus met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. (Tr. at 37.) At step two, the ALJ determined that Emrich suffered from the following severe impairments through her date last insured: hepatitis C, bunions of both feet, ankle instability, obesity, opiate dependence in remission, panic attacks, and agoraphobia. The ALJ found at step three that these impairments did not meet or equal a disability listing. (Id. at 38.)

Therefore, the ALJ assessed Emrich's RFC and determined that Emrich could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) with further limitations to unskilled, simple, and routine tasks, working primarily with things and not people, and limited public contact. (Id. at 39.) At step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined that Emrich could not perform relevant past work with her current RFC. (Id. at 45.) However, based on the testimony of a vocational expert, the ALJ concluded at step five that Emrich could perform other jobs that exist in significant numbers ...

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