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Best v. Berryhill

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

February 3, 2017

Pamela Gail Best, Plaintiff,
Nancy Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Pamela Gail Best instituted this action on January 19, 2016, to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Best claims that the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) William Andersen erred in failing to consider whether utilizing a lower “Grid Rule” in the Medical-Vocational Guidelines was appropriate. Both Best and Defendant Nancy Berryhill, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 22, 26.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Andersen reached the appropriate decision. There is substantial evidence to support ALJ Andersen's step five finding relying on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) as to the existence of other work which Best could perform. Therefore, the undersigned magistrate judge recommends that the court deny Best's motion, grant Berryhill's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's decision.[2]

         I. Background

         On January 12, 2012, Best protectively filed applications for disability benefits and supplemental security income. In both applications, Best alleged a disability that began on June 25, 2011. After her claims were was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Best appeared at a hearing before an ALJ Andersen on March 7, 2014 to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. ALJ Andersen determined determined Best was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Id. at 12-20.

         ALJ Andersen found that Best had the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, chronic bilateral thumb pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”), asthma, degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), depression, and anxiety. Id. at 15. ALJ Andersen found that Best's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Id. Andersen then determined that Best had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with additional limitations. She can sit four hours in an eight-hour workday; she can stand and walk six hours in an eight-hour workday[3]; she is able to use her right hand frequently; she is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; she is limited to no more than occasional work around moving machinery parts or heights; she must avoid excessive exposure to temperature extremes; she is unable to work outside; she is capable of performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks with occasional interactions with supervisors and the public and frequent interactions with coworkers; and her work must involve non-production tasks. Id. at 16. ALJ Andersen concluded that Best had no past relevant work but that considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Best was capable of performing. Id. at 18-19. A routing clerk was one such job. Id. at 19. Thus, ALJ Andersen found that Best was not disabled. Id. at 20.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Best commenced this action by filing a complaint pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) on January 19, 2015. D.E. 6.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         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. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         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, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he 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).

         C. Medical Background

         Because the parties do not dispute the medical evidence or ALJ Andersen's consideration of it, it will receive only a brief review. Best has several physical impairments which ALJ Andersen deemed to be severe: diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, chronic bilateral thumb pain, COPD, asthma, and degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine. Tr. at 15. She has also has diagnoses of PTSD, depression, and anxiety which impede her ability to perform work activities. Id. Best testified that she experiences back pain, numbness and tingling in her hands and feet, wheezing and dyspnea. Id. at ...

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