United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
CHERYL M. DEMAG, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
Reidinger, United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for
Summary Judgment [Doc. 10], and the Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment [Doc. 12].
30, 2011, the Plaintiff, Cheryl M. Demag, filed applications
for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security
income payments, alleging an onset date of September 15,
2009. [Transcript “T.” 233, 238, 268]. The
Plaintiff later amended her alleged onset date to August 1,
2011. [T. 267]. The Plaintiff's applications were denied
initially and on reconsideration. [T. 182, 194, 208, 216].
Upon Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on October
29, 2013, before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). [T. 42-86]. Present at the hearing were
the Plaintiff; Scott H. Shelton, Plaintiff's attorney;
and a vocational expert (“VE”). [Id.].
On February 21, 2014, the ALJ issued a decision, wherein the
ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. [T.
23-36]. On August 6, 2015, the Appeals Council denied the
Plaintiff's request for review [T. 1-6], 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).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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).
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.
THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
“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.
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
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);
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.
THE ALJ'S DECISION
one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in
substantial gainful activity since her amended alleged onset
date, August 1, 2011. [T. 18]. At step two, the ALJ found
that the Plaintiff has severe medically determinable
impairments including degenerative disc disease of the spine,
with a history of cervical fusion and laminectomy; chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease; osteoarthritis of the knees;
history of Baker's cyst; obesity; mood disorder; and
anxiety disorders. [T. 26]. At step three, the ALJ determined
that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination