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Kirk v. Berryhill

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

March 13, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Martin Reidinger United States District Judge.

         THIS 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]. As more fully explained below, the Court will grant the Plaintiff's motion and remand this matter.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff asserts that her severe depression, major anxiety, and certain other mood disorders constitute severe mental impairments under the Social Security Act rendering her disabled. [Doc. 8-4 at 2 (Transcript (“T.”) at 86)]. On February 20, 2012, the Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, alleging an onset date of June 2, 2009 (later amended to January 15, 2012). [Doc. 8-3 at 67 (T. at 66)]. The Plaintiff's claim was denied initially on May 17, 2012 [Doc. 8-4 at 2 to 19 (T. at 86 to 103)], and upon reconsideration on September 5, 2012. [Id. at 21 to 39 (T. at 105 to 123)]. At the Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 12, 2014. [Doc. 8-3 at 64 to 86 (T. at 63 to 85)]. The Plaintiff appeared with counsel. Also present were Kathryn H. Mooney, the Vocational Expert (“VE”), and Annette Gilbert, the Plaintiff's sister. [Id.]. On August 22, 2014, the ALJ issued a written decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. [Id. at 25 to 35 (T. at 24 to 34)]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review on November 24, 2015, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [Id. at 2 to 4 (T. at 1 to 3)]. The Plaintiff, having exhausted all available administrative remedies, filed her action in this Court. This case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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).


         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 claimant “bears the burden of proving that he is disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act.” English v. Shalala, 10 F.3d 1080, 1082 (4th Cir. 1993). In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. If the claimant's case fails at any step, the ALJ does not go any further and benefits are denied. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         At the first step, 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. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520; 416.920. If not, the case progresses to the second step 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. Third, if a severe impairment is shown and meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. § 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P, the claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. Fourth, if the severe impairment does not meet any of the Listings, then the ALJ determines the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and reviews the physical and mental demands of work done in the past. If the claimant can still perform his/her prior work despite the severe impairment, then a finding of not disabled is mandated. Id. If the claimant has a severe impairment but cannot perform past relevant work, then 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 that exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Id.; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006) (noting Commissioner bears evidentiary burden at step five). The 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, if applicable, or by calling a VE to testify. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1566. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her burden at step five, the claimant is not disabled. Otherwise, the claimant is entitled to benefits. In this case, the ALJ rendered a determination adverse to the Plaintiff at the fifth step.


         At step one the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged amended onset date. At step two the ALJ found, as relevant here, that Plaintiff suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, dependent personality disorder, mood disorder, and attention deficit disorder, all severe mental impairments. [Doc. 8-3 at 27 (T. at 26)]. At step three, the ALJ found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal one of the Listings. [Id.].

         At step four, the ALJ made his determination with regard to the Plaintiff's RFC and concluded that:

the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) except, the claimant retained the mental capacity to perform simple, repetitive, routine tasks, where there was no contact with the public, in a non-production environment, with a set routine.

[Id. at 29 (T. at 28)]. As noted, the ALJ's medium work RFC determination was restricted. He concluded Plaintiff could not perform the full range of medium work, in part, because she was limited to performing simple tasks, in a non-public setting, that did not require firm production quotas. The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as a legal assistant, an office manager, and a receptionist. [Id. at 34 (T. at 33)]. The ALJ observed, however, that “[s]ince claimant is only able to perform at the unskilled level, she would not be able to engage in past work.” [Id.]. Accordingly, the ALJ concluded the Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. [Id.].

         With the Plaintiff having carried her burden through the first four steps, the ALJ then assessed whether, at step five, the Commissioner could meet her burden of showing the availability of jobs the Plaintiff is able to do, given her RFC. [Id.]. Based upon the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that, considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs existing in the local and/or national economy that she was able to perform, including day worker, laundry labeler, ...

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