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Williams v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

May 18, 2017

ROSETTA COOPER WILLIAMS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 16, 20). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge James E. Gates entered a memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”), wherein it is recommended that the court deny plaintiff's motion, grant defendant's motion, and affirm defendant's final decision. Plaintiff timely filed an objection to the M&R, and the issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, the court adopts the M&R as its own, grants defendant's motion, denies plaintiff's motion, and affirms defendant's final decision.

         BACKGROUND

         On January 29, 2013, plaintiff filed applications for a period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and supplemental security income, alleging disability beginning January 28, 2013. The applications were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who, after an October 24, 2014, hearing, denied plaintiff's claims by decision entered December 19, 2014. Following the ALJ's denial of her applications, plaintiff timely filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which denied the request, leaving the ALJ's decision as defendant's final decision. Plaintiff then filed a complaint in this court on March 31, 2016, seeking review of defendant's decision.

         COURT'S DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review

         The court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to review defendant's final decision denying benefits. The court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ “if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996). “Substantial evidence is . . . such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quotations omitted). The standard is met by “more than a mere scintilla of evidence but . . . less than a preponderance.” Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court is not to “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment” for defendant's. Craig, 76 F.3d at 589.

         “A necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling, ” including “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). An ALJ's decision must “include a narrative discussion describing how the evidence supports each conclusion, ” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 189 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 636 (4th Cir. 2015)), and an ALJ “must build an accurate and logical bridge from the evidence to his conclusion.” Id. (quoting Clifford v. Apfel, 227 F.3d 863, 872 (7th Cir. 2000)).

         To assist it in its review of defendant's denial of benefits, the court may “designate a magistrate judge to conduct hearings . . . and to submit . . . proposed findings of fact and recommendations for the disposition [of the motions for judgment on the pleadings].” See 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The parties may object to the magistrate judge's findings and recommendations, and the court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” Id. § 636(b)(1). The court does not perform a de novo review where a party makes only “general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982). Absent a specific and timely-filed objection, the court reviews only for “clear error, ” and need not give any explanation for adopting the M&R. Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005); Camby v. Davis, 718 F.2d 198, 200 (4th Cir.1983). Upon careful review of the record, “the court may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         The ALJ's determination of eligibility for Social Security benefits involves a five-step sequential evaluation process, which asks whether:

(1) the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) the claimant has a medical impairment (or combination of impairments) that are severe; (3) the claimant's medical impairment meets or exceeds the severity of one of the impairments listed in [the regulations]; (4) the claimant can perform [his or her] past relevant work; and (5) the claimant can perform other specified types of work.

Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 654 n.1 (4th Cir. 2005) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520). The burden of proof is on the claimant during the first four steps of the inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         In the instant matter, the ALJ performed the sequential evaluation. At step one, the ALJ found that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 28, 2013, her alleged onset date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a disorder of the spine, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension. However, at step three, the ALJ determined that these impairments were not severe enough, viewed either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listings in the regulations. Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c), with the following limitations: occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; occasionally stoop and crouch; and must avoid concentrated exposure to hazards, such as working around unprotected heights and dangerous machinery.[1] In making this assessment, the ALJ found plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms to be “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 19). At step four, the ALJ concluded plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a nurse assistant, rubber good finisher, finisher, and hand packager. The ALJ did not make a formal finding at step ...


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