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Chavis v. Colvin

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Southern Division

March 6, 2015

Angela Hubbard Chavis, Plaintiff,
Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


ROBERT T. NUMBERS, II, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Angela Hubbard Chavis instituted this action on December 5, 2013 to challenge the denial of her application for supplemental security income. Chavis claims that Administrative Law Judge Edward T. Morriss erred in his determination by relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (commonly known as the Grids) to determine that she was not disabled and by failing to obtain testimony from a vocational expert prior to rendering his decision. Both Chavis and Defendant Carolyn Colvin, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, have filed dispositive motions seeking a judgment in their favor. After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined[1] that Chavis' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings will be denied, Colvin's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings will be granted, and the Commissioner's final decision is affirmed.

I. Background

On April 6, 2010, Chavis filed an application for supplemental security income on the basis of a disability that allegedly began on June 1, 1993. After her claim was denied at both the initial stage and upon reconsideration, Chavis appeared before ALJ Morriss for a hearing to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. After the hearing, ALJ Morriss determined that Chavis was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. (Tr. at 17-27.)

Although Chavis lived with several severe impairments, ALJ Morriss found that she had the residual functional capacity to perform light work. (Id. at 22.) Specifically, Morriss determined that Chavis could lift and carry up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; stand, walk, and sit for 6 hours out of an 8 hour work day; and could perform frequent handling and fingering activities. (Id. ) Chavis's light work was subject to two specific limitations. First, she would have to avoid concentrated exposure to heat, humidity, fumes, dust, odor, gases and poor ventilation. (Id. ) Second, she could have occasional contact with coworkers and supervisors, but no significant contact with the public. (Id. )

Based upon these findings and Chavis's age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity ("RFC"), Morriss held that Medical-Vocational Guideline Rule 202.10 required a finding that she was not disabled. (Id. at 27.) Morriss determined that he could rely on the Grids despite Chavis' non-exertional limitations because they had little or no effect on the job base for light work. (Id. ) The ALJ concluded that the concentrated exposure to heat and humidity was not present in most jobs and the limitation regarding no significant contact with the public would not preclude Chavis from performing unskilled work. (Id. )

After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Chavis commenced this action and filed a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on December 5, 2013. [D.E. 1].


When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. Smith v. Chafer, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The analysis requires the ALJ to consider the following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment then, at step four, the claimant's RFC is assessed to determine whether plaintiff can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).


Chavis contends that the ALJ erred at step five, arguing that the finding of non-exertional impairment at step two precludes reliance on the Grids at step five. She asserts that the Commissioner failed to carry her burden at step five by identifying jobs in the national economy that she is capable of performing, given her age, education, work experience, and RFC.

While a claimant has the burden at steps one through four, it is the Commissioner's burden at step five to show that work the claimant is capable of performing is available. Pass v. Id. (citing Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 21, 35 (4th Cir. 1992)). "The Commissioner may meet this burden by relying on the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (Grids) or by calling a vocational expert [("VE")] to testify." Aistrop v. Barnhart, 36 F.Appx. 145, 146 (4th Cir. 2002) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566)). The Grids are published tables that take administrative notice of the number of unskilled jobs at each exertional level in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 2 § 200.00(a).

When a claimant suffers solely from exertional impairments, the Grids may satisfy the Commissioner's burden of coming forward with evidence as to the availability of jobs the claimant can perform. Grant v. Schweiker, 699 F.2d 189, 192 (4th Cir. 1983). When a claimant: (1) suffers from a nonexertional impairment that restricts his ability to perform work of which he is exertionally capable, or (2) suffers an exertional impairment which restricts him from performing the full range of activity covered by a work category, the ALJ may not rely on the Grids and must produce specific vocational evidence showing that the national economy offers employment opportunities to the claimant. See Walker v. Bowen, 889 ...

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