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Williams v. Berryhill

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

February 6, 2017

TALYA JANESE WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          James E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge

         In this action, plaintiff Talya Janese Williams ("plaintiff or, in context, "claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying her application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") on the grounds that she is not disabled.[2] The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 16, 20. Both filed memoranda in support of their respective motions. D.E. 17, 21. The motions were referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). See 18 July 2016 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that plaintiffs motion be allowed, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and this case be remanded.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI on 19 March 2012, alleging a disability onset date of 28 November 2009. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 9. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for a hearing was timely filed. Tr. 9. On 8 January 2014, plaintiff amended her onset date to 19 March 2012. Tr. 221. On 28 February 2014, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), at which plaintiff, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 43-72. The ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs claims on 3 April 2014. Tr. 9-23. Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council (Tr. 38) and subsequently submitted additional medical records to the Appeals Council for the first time spanning the period from 9 April 2014 to 21 May 2014 (732-48). On 3 August 2015, the Appeals Council admitted the additional medical records. See Tr. 2, 4. Notwithstanding admission of the additional evidence, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. Tr. 1.

         At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. On 28 September 2015, plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review of the ALJ's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) (DIB) and 1383(c)(3) (SSI). See In Forma Pauperis ("IFP") Mot. (D.E. 1); Order Allowing IFP Mot. (D.E. 4); Compl. (D.E. 5).

         B. Standards for Disability

         The Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). "An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." 42 U.S.C. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:

To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the [Regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the [R]egulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
The first four steps create a series of hurdles for claimants to meet. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has been working (step one) or that the claimant's medical impairments do not meet the severity and duration requirements of the [R]egulations (step two), the process ends with a finding of "not disabled." At step three, the ALJ either finds that the claimant is disabled because her impairments match a listed impairment [i.e., a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 ("the Listings")] or continues the analysis. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at this step.
If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity ["RFC"], which is "the most" the claimant "can still do despite" physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. [20 C.F.R.] § 416.945(a)(1).[3] To make this assessment, the ALJ must "consider all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, " including those not labeled severe at step two. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).[4]
The ALJ then moves on to step four, where the ALJ can find the claimant not disabled because she is able to perform her past work. Or, if the exertion required for the claimant's past work exceeds her [RFC], the ALJ goes on to step five.
At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can perform other work that "exists in significant numbers in the national economy, " considering the claimant's [RFC], age, education, and work experience. Id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429.[5] The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations. If the Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not disabled and denies the application for benefits.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015).

         C. ALJ's Findings

         The ALJ found that plaintiff was 35 years old on the amended alleged onset date of disability, [6] and plaintiff testified that she was 36 years old on the date of the hearing. See, e.g., Tr. 21 ¶ 7; 47. The ALJ found that plaintiff has at least a high school education (Tr. 21 ¶ 8) and past relevant work as a cafeteria food server, fast food worker, waitress, and tray worker (Tr. 21 ¶ 6).

         Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended date of alleged onset of disability. Tr. 11 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: human immunodeficiency virus ("HIV"), scoliosis, vision impairment, anxiety disorder, and affective disorder. Tr. 11 ¶ 3. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the Listings. Tr. 12-14 ¶ 4.

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of sedentary work:

[T]he claimant has the [RFC] to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a)[7] except that she cannot . . . climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant can occasionally kneel, crouch, stoop, and crawl. She must avoid exposure to work hazards. The claimant can frequently perform fine and gross manipulation with her right upper extremity. She can perform no work requiring good depth perception or good right-sided peripheral vision. The claimant can tolerate occasional changes in the work settings/procedure, but she cannot work in a fast-paced production environment.

Tr. 14-15 ¶ 5.

         Based on his determination of plaintiff s RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work. Tr. 21 ¶ 6. At step five, the ALJ accepted the testimony of the vocational expert and found that there were jobs in the national economy existing in significant numbers that plaintiff could perform, including jobs in the occupations of weight tester, dispatcher, and telephone information clerk. Tr. 22 ¶ 10. The ALJ accordingly concluded that plaintiff was not disabled from the amended date of the alleged onset of disability, 19 March 2012, through the date of the decision, 3 April 2014. Tr. 23 ¶ 11.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the appropriate legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Unless the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial « evidence or that the wrong legal standard was applied, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Per ales, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla of evidence, but somewhat less than a preponderance. Id.

         The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner as long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). In addition, the court may not make findings of fact, revisit inconsistent evidence, or make determinations of credibility. See Craig v. Chafer, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979). A Commissioner's decision based on substantial evidence must be affirmed, even if the reviewing court would have reached a different conclusion. Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775.

         Where, as here, the Appeals Council considers additional evidence before denying the claimant's request for review of the ALJ's decision, "the court must 'review the record as a whole, including the [additional] evidence, in order to determine whether substantial evidence supports the Secretary's findings.'" Felts v. Astrue, No. 1:11CV00054, 2012 WL 1836280, at *1 (W.D. Va. 19 May 2012) (quoting Wilkins v. Sec 'y Dep't of Health & Human Servs., 953 F.2d 93, 96 (4th Cir. 1991)). Remand is required if the court concludes that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence based on the record as supplemented by the evidence submitted at the Appeals Council level. Id. at *l-2.

         Before a court can determine whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must ascertain whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight given to probative evidence. See Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997). "Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator." DeLoatche v. Heckler, 715 F.2d 148, 150 (4th Cir. 1983).

         III. OVERVIEW OF ...


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