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Farrington v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 1, 2017

EMMA FARRINGTON, on behalf of HOWARD FARRINGTON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          JOE L. WEBSTER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Emma Farrington, on behalf of the deceased claimant, Howard Farrington ("Farrington"), seeks review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claims for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Tide II of the Social Security Act ("the Act").[1] The Court has before it the certified administrative record and cross-motions for judgment. (Docket Entries 6, 8, 10.) For reasons discussed below, it is recommended that Plaintiffs motion for judgment on the pleadings be denied, Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings be granted, and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Farrington applied for DIB on or about February 14, 2011, alleging a disability onset date of September 30, 2008. (Tr. 176-79.)[2] His application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 118-121, 125-27.) Thereafter, Farrington requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. 77-78.) Farrington, his attorney, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared at the hearing on September 16, 2013. (Tr. 46-69.) A decision by the ALJ was issued on December 11, 2013, upholding the denial of Farrington's application for DIB. (Tr. 33-42.) Farrington thereafter retained another attorney who appealed the ALJ's decision to the Appeals Council on February 4, 2014. (Tr. 23-25.) Farrington died on February 28, 2014. On May 12, 2015, the Appeals Council denied Farrington's request for review of the decision. (Tr. 18-20.) The Appeals Council thereafter allowed additional information to be submitted by Farrington's counsel. (Tr. 13-14.) On August 6, 2015, after setting aside its earlier denial, the Appeals Council again denied Farrington's request for review of the ALJ's decision, thereby making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. 1-5.) Farrington's widow, Emma Farrington (proceeding as "Plaintiff in this matter), was named a substitute party and subsequently filed the instant Complaint with this Court. (Docket Entry 2.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Commissioner held that Farrington was not under a disability within the meaning of the Act. Under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), the scope of judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision is specific and narrow. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986). This Court's review of that decision is limited to determining whether there is substantial evidence in the record to support the Commissioner's decision. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (citing 'Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)). It "consists of more than a mere scintilla" "but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Id. (quoting Lams v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)).

         The Commissioner must make findings of fact and resolve conflicts in the evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456 (citing King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979)). The Court does not conduct a de novo review of the evidence nor of the Commissioner's findings. Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345. In reviewing for substantial evidence, the Court does not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, to make credibility determinations, or to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the [Commissioner's] designate, the ALJ)." Cmig, 76 F.3d at 589 (quoting Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)). The denial of benefits will be reversed only if no reasonable mind could accept the record as adequate to support the determination. See Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401. The issue before the Court, therefore, is not whether Plaintiff is disabled, but whether the Commissioner's finding that Plaintiff is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law. See id.; Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Or. 1987).

         III. THE ALJ'S DISCUSSION

         The Social Security Regulations define "disability" for the purpose of obtaining disability benefits as the "inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment[3] 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." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(a). To meet this definition, a claimant must have a severe impairment which makes it impossible to do previous work or any other substantial gainful activity[4] that exists in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1505(a); see also 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).

         A. The Five-Step Sequential Analysis

         The Commissioner follows a five-step sequential analysis to ascertain whether the claimant is disabled, which is set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. See Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The ALJ must determine:

(1) Whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity (i.e., whether the claimant is working). If so, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends.
(2) Whether the claimant has a severe impairment. If not, then the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry ends.
(3) Whether the impairment meets or equals to medical criteria of 20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, which sets forth a list of impairments that warrant a finding of disability without considering vocational criteria. If so, the claimant is disabled and the inquiry is halted.
(4) Whether the impairment prevents the claimant from performing past relevant work. If not, the claimant is not disabled and the inquiry is halted.
(5) Whether the claimant is able to perform any other work considering both his residual functional capacity[5] ("RFC") and his vocational abilities. If ...

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