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Ponder v. Berryhill

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

March 31, 2017

CASSANDRA MARIE PONDER, 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. 12), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 12-1)[1]; Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 14), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 15); and Plaintiff's Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 16).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Cassandra Ponder (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Defendant Social Security Commissioner's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security claim. (Doc. No. 1). On October 3, 2011, Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et seq. (Doc. Nos. 8 to 8-26: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 201-17). Plaintiff alleged an inability to work due to disabling conditions beginning on April 1, 2010. (Id. at 201). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's applications initially and on reconsideration. (Id. at 93, 110, 127, and 142). Plaintiff filed a timely written request for a hearing. (Id. at 50).

         On May 21, 2013, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, appeared and testified at a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Id. at 53-92). The ALJ issued a decision on July 19, 2013, denying Plaintiff's claims. (Id. at 12-35). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision on September 16, 2013, which was the Appeals Council denied on November 22, 2013. (Id. at 1-9). Plaintiff filed a complaint in federal court seeking judicial review and a remand of her claim on January 23, 2014 and was remanded to the Commissioner on August 8, 2014 on the basis of a consent motion to remand filed by Defendant. Ponder v. Colvin, 1:14-cv-00019-MOC (W.D. N.C. filed Jan. 23, 2014).

         On June 16, 2015, Plaintiff, represented by counsel, again appeared and testified at a hearing before an ALJ-the same ALJ who presided over the first hearing. (Id. at 1308-38). The ALJ issued a decision on August 26, 2015, denying Plaintiff's claims, which is the final decision of the Commissioner. (Id. at 1279-307).

         Plaintiff's Complaint seeking judicial review and a remand of her case was filed in this Court on December 23, 2015. (Doc. No. 1). Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 12), and Plaintiff's Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 12-1), were filed June 6, 2016; and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 14), and Defendant's Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 15), were filed September 6, 2016. Plaintiff filed a response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on September 23, 2016, but rested on the arguments she made in her Memorandum in Support of her Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. No. 16). 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 1, 2010, and the date of his decision on August, 26, 2015.[2] (Tr. at 1307). 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 1, 2010, through the date of his decision, August 26, 2015. (Tr. at 1307).

         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 1306-07).

         Specifically, the ALJ first concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since April 1, 2010, the alleged disability onset date. (Id. at 1284-85). At the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, a history of abdominal endometriosis, depression, [and] anxiety.” (Id. at 1285). 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 1285-86).

         Next, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and found that she retained the capacity to perform “medium” work.[3] (Id. at 1290). Specifically, the ALJ found ...


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