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McCoy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

March 8, 2017

TENEYA DAWN MCCOY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          Martin Reidinger, United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 9], and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 11].

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On June 20, 2012, the Plaintiff, Teneya Dawn McCoy, filed applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income payments, alleging an onset date of January 30, 2009. [Transcript “T.” 275-299]. The Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. [T. 192-209, 215-232]. Upon Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on September 25, 2014, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [T. 53]. Present at the hearing were the Plaintiff; Jim Toms, who the ALJ identified as the Plaintiff's attorney;[1] and a vocational expert (“VE”). [Id.]. At this hearing, the Plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to May 15, 2010, the day after the denial of an earlier claim. [T. 16]. On December 2, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision, wherein the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. [T. 13-30]. On July 16, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review [T. 1-4], thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). “When examining [a Social Security Administration] disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” the Court defers to the ALJ's decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[t]he record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013).

         III. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         A “disability” entitling a claimant to benefits under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is “[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) (2012). The Social Security Administration Regulations set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first four steps. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant's application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the claimant. Id. If not, the case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, which significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is established and the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an administrative assessment of “the most” a claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing basis” notwithstanding the claimant's medically determinable impairments and the extent to which those impairments affect the claimant's ability to perform work-related functions. SSR 96-8p, 61 Fed. Reg. 34, 474, 1996 WL 374184 (Jul. 2, 1996); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c); 404.943(c); 416.945.

         At step four, the claimant must show that his or her limitations prevent the claimant from performing his or her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634. If the claimant can still perform his or her past work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. Otherwise, the case progresses to the fifth step where the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that, given the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the claimant can perform alternative work which exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Id.; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006). “The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her burden at step five, the claimant is not disabled and the application for benefits must be denied. Id.

         IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date, May 15, 2010. [T. 18]. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has severe medically determinable impairments including status post left total hip replacement with residual arthritis, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, asthma, posttraumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and personality disorder. [Id.]. At step three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that ...


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