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Dean v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 21, 2017

RALPH E. DEAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Ralph E. Dean (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


         Plaintiff protectively filed his application for DIB in July of 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 30, 2010 (Tr. at 73.)[2] His claim was denied initially on September 5, 2013 (Tr. at 73-87) and on reconsideration on December 17, 2013 (Tr. at 89-104). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. at 120-21), which he attended on September 25, 2015 (Tr. at 52-71). The ALJ ultimately issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled under the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 12-21.) Plaintiff's subsequent request for an Appeals Council review was denied on December 10, 2015 (Tr. at 1-6), thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial 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 [the] 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) (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. 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 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)).[3]

         “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 each of the first two steps, and establishes at step three that the impairment “equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the regulations, ” then “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, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual function[al] capacity (‘RFC').” Id. at 179.[4] 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 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 Government cannot carry its “evidentiary 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.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since his alleged onset date. (Tr. at 14.) Plaintiff therefore met his burden at step one of the sequential analysis. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered the severe impairments of “lumbar degenerative disc disease; and hypertension.” (Id.) The ALJ found at step three that these impairments did not met or equal a disability listing. (Tr. at 15.) Therefore, the ALJ was required to determine Plaintiff's RFC. The ALJ determined that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform:

Medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except that he may occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, and scaffolds; [Plaintiff] may frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and he must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards.

(Tr. at 15.) Based on that determination, the ALJ found under step four of the analysis that Plaintiff was able to return to his past relevant work as a line supervisor, therefore meaning that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. (Tr. at 19.) The ALJ alternatively concluded that based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, Plaintiff “is capable of making a successful adjustment to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy.” (Tr. at 21.) In making that determination, the ALJ noted several positions that Plaintiff would be able to perform, based on the testimony of a Vocational Expert. (Tr. at 20.) The ALJ thus determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the meaning of the Act. (Id.)

         Plaintiff now argues that the ALJ erred in three respects: (1) finding that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 1.04A or 1.04C; (2) failing to give proper weight to the opinion evidence on record; and (3) finding that Plaintiff has the RFC to perform medium work and his past relevant work as a line supervisor. The Court will examine each of these arguments in turn. Ultimately, none merit remand.

         A. Substantial Evidence Supports the ALJ's Determination that Plaintiff's Impairments Did Not Meet or Equal Listing 1.04A or 1.04C.

         Plaintiff first argues that the ALJ erred at step three of the sequential evaluation process by finding that Plaintiff's back impairment did not meet or equal 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, § 1.04A or § 1.04C (hereinafter, “Listing 1.04A” or “Listing 1.04C, ” respectively).[5] At step three of the sequential analysis, the ALJ considers whether any impairment meets or equals one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix 1 of the regulations. The listings define impairments which are so severe that they would “prevent an adult, regardless of his age, education, or work experience, from performing any gainful activity, not just ‘substantial gainful activity.'” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990). For a claimant to demonstrate that he qualifies for a listing, and therefore is entitled to a conclusive presumption of disabled status, he must meet all of the medical criteria specified for that listing. Id. at 531. An impairment that meets only some of the listing criteria, no matter how severe, will not qualify. Id. Similarly, “[f]or a claimant to qualify for benefits by showing that his unlisted impairment, or combination of impairments, is ‘equivalent' to a listed impairment, he must present medical findings equal in severity to all the criteria for the one most similar listed impairment.” Id. (emphasis in original).

         Notably, at step three, an ALJ is not required to explicitly identify and discuss every possible listing; however, he is compelled to provide a coherent basis for his step three determination, particularly where the “medical record includes a fair amount of evidence” that a claimant's impairment meets a disability listing. Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013). Where such evidence exists but is rejected without discussion, “insufficient legal analysis makes it impossible for a reviewing court to evaluate whether substantial evidence supports the ALJ's findings.” Id. (citing Cook v. Heckler, 783 F.2d 1168, 1173 (4th Cir. 1986)). Thus, the ALJ's decision must include “a sufficient discussion of the evidence and explanation of its reasoning such that meaningful judicial review is possible.” Meador v. Colvin, No. 7:13-CV-214, 2015 WL 1477894, at *3 (W.D. Va. Mar. 27, 2015) (citing Smith v. Astrue, 457 F. App'x 326, 328 (4th Cir. 2011)). However, it is possible ...

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