United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for
Summary Judgment [Doc. 9] and the Defendant's Motion for
Summary Judgment [Doc. 10].
September 17, 2011, the Plaintiff, Sue Marie Mills, filed
applications for disability insurance benefits and
supplemental security income payments, alleging an onset date
of January 30, 2011. [Transcript “T.” 208]. The
Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on
reconsideration. [T. 75, 104]. Upon Plaintiff's request,
a hearing was held on October 2, 2013, before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [T. 48-65].
Present at the hearing were the Plaintiff; Plaintiff's
attorney, Robert Lopez; and a vocational expert
(“VE”). [Id.]. On October 24, 2013, the
ALJ issued a decision, wherein the ALJ concluded that the
Plaintiff was not disabled. [T. 31-41]. On November 5, 2014,
the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for
review [T. 23-27], 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. §
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).
Commissioner may meet this burden by relying on the Medical-
Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”) found at 20
C.F.R. 404, Appendix 2 to Subpart P. Alternatively, the ALJ
may solicit testimony from a VE whether such alternative work
exists for a hypothetical person with the claimant's same
age, education, work experience, and RFC. 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 alleged onset date,
January 30, 2011. [T. 33]. At step two, the ALJ found that
the Plaintiff has severe medically determinable impairments
including: degenerative disc disease status post lumbar
fusion (“disc disease”), migraine headaches,
carpal tunnel syndrome, and mood and anxiety disorders
(“mental disorders”). [Id.]. At step
three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff does not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that meets or
medically equals the Listings. [T. 34-35]. The ALJ then
determined that the Plaintiff, notwithstanding her
impairments, has the RFC:
[T]o perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b) except she can perform occasional
posturals with no climbing of ladders, ropes or scaffolds.
She is limited to frequent bilateral fingering and she should
avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. She can perform