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Green v. Berryhill

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

March 30, 2017

LINDA GREEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 8), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 9), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 12).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Linda Green (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Carolyn W. Colvin's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security claim. (Doc. No. 1). On October 5, 2012, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et seq. (Doc. Nos. 7 to 7-9: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 48, 121-25). Plaintiff alleged an inability to work due to disabling conditions beginning on April 2, 2012. (Id. at 123). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially on December 4, 2012, and again after reconsideration on February 22, 2013. (Id. at 48-67). Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing. (Id. at 88).

         On January 27, 2014, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, participated in and testified at a video hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 34-47). The ALJ issued a decision on March 18, 2014, denying Plaintiff's claims. (Id. at 14-33). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision on or about April 24, 2014, which was denied by the Appeals Council on October 9, 2015. (Id. at 13, 1-7). Therefore, the March 18, 2014 ALJ decision became the final decision of the Commissioner.

         Plaintiff's Complaint seeking judicial review and a remand of her case was filed in this Court on December 8, 2015. (Doc. No. 1). Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 8), and Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 9), were filed May 9, 2016; and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Defendant's Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 12), were filed August 8, 2016. Plaintiff did not file a response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and the time for doing so has passed. The pending motions are ripe for adjudication.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was under a “disability” as that term of art is defined for Social Security purposes, at any time between April 2, 2012, and the date of his decision on March 18, 2014.[1] (Tr. at 16). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from April 2, 2012, through the date of his decision, March 18, 2014. (Tr. at 14-33).

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The five steps are:

(1) whether claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity-if yes, not disabled;
(2) whether claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments that meet the duration requirement in § 404.1509-if no, not disabled;
(3) whether claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listings in appendix 1 and meets the duration requirement-if yes, disabled;
(4) whether claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work-if yes, not disabled; and
(5) whether considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience he or she can make an adjustment to other work-if yes, not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). In this case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. at 22-29).

         Specifically, the ALJ first concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since April 2, 2012, the alleged disability onset date. (Id. at 19). At the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “degenerative disc disease, obesity, and an affective disorder.” (Id.). At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an “impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id. at 21-22).

         Next, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and found that she retained the capacity to perform “light” work. (Id. at 22-27). Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC to perform as follows:

light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she can perform only occasional postural activities and is precluded from climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She should avoid concentrated exposure to extreme cold and hazards and is limited to simple, unskilled work.

(Id. at 22).[2] In making his finding, the ALJ specifically stated that he “considered all symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence.” (Id.). The ALJ further opined that he “considered opinion evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 CFR 404.1527 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p and 06-3p.” (Id.).

         At the fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (Id. at 25). At the fifth and final step, the ALJ concluded, based on the testimony of a vocational expert and “considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, [that] there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.” (Id.). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a “disability, ” as defined by the Social Security Act, from April 2, 2012 through the date of his decision. (Id. at 29).

         II.STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The District Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). As the Social Security Act provides, “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, the Fourth Circuit noted that “substantial evidence” has been defined as being “more than a scintilla and do[ing] more than creat[ing] a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a ...


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