United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Marcia Starnes'
Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. No. 9), filed on
January 30, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social
Security Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment
(Doc. No. 11), filed on March 20, 2017. Plaintiff seeks
judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on
her application for disability benefits under 42 U.S.C.
reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative
record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set
forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the
Pleadings is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary
Judgment is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is
February 21, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed an
application for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits and for supplemental security income. (Tr.
164). Plaintiff alleged disability beginning on January 1,
2012, but later amended her alleged onset date to May 11,
2012. Id. After her application was denied initially
and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff filed a written request
for a hearing. Id. An Administrative Law Judge
(“the ALJ”) held a video hearing on April 14,
2015, at which Plaintiff appeared with her attorney and a
vocational expert (“VE”). (Tr. 64-118). On April
30, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act
(“the Act”). (Tr. 164-178).
found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since May 11, 2011, and had severe impairments of
cervical and lumbar degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel
syndrome, sleep apnea, hypertension, and anxiety. (Tr. 166).
However, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have a severe
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equal a per se medical impairment listing under 20
C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpart P, App. 1. (Tr. 168). The ALJ then
found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity
(“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work
as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and
416.967(b), with the following physical limitations:
[Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can
never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds. She can occasionally
balance, stoop, and crouch, but can never crawl or kneel. She
should avoid unprotected heights, dangerous equipment, and
vibrations. She can frequently reach, handle, and finder with
the right dominant upper extremity. She should avoid more
than occasional exposure to respiratory and pulmonary
irritants, extreme heat, extreme cold, and humidity. She is
limited to a moderate noise environment as defined by the
Selected Characteristics of Occupations. She should
avoid rapid positional changes defined as more than
occasional quick rising from a seated position.
170). While the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to
perform her past relevant work, the VE did produce a list of
jobs which existed in significant numbers that Plaintiff
could perform within the ALJ's limitations. (Tr. 177).
August 12, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's
request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the
Commissioner's final decision on the case. (Tr. 1-6).
Having exhausted all administrative remedies, Plaintiff
commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The
parties' motions for summary judgment are now ripe for
review. Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision is not
based on proper legal standards and unsupported by
substantial evidence as 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) requires.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and
§ 1383(c)(3), this Court's review of a final
decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is limited
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, 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) (2006); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v.
Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013).
reviewing court must uphold the decision of the Commissioner,
even in instances where the reviewing court would have come
to a different conclusion, so long as the Commissioner's
decision is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v.
Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1972);
Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir.
1972). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence
that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion” and is “more than a mere scintilla of
evidence, and [it] must do more than create suspicion of the
existence of a fact to be established.” Smith v.
Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting
Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401). In reviewing for
substantial evidence, a court should not re-weigh conflicting
evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its
judgment for that of the Commissioner. Craig v.
Charter, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing
Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir.
1990)). The ALJ-not the reviewing Court-bears the ultimate
responsibility for weighing the evidence and resolving
conflicts. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.
evaluating an application for disability benefits, an ALJ
uses a five step sequential process for determining whether a
person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4),
416.920(a)(4). Those five steps are: (1) whether the claimant
is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) whether the
claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a
combination of impairments that is severe; (3) whether the
claimant's impairments or combination of impairments
meets or medically equals one of The Listings in 20 C.F.R.
Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1; (4) whether the claimant has
the RFC to perform the requirements of past relevant work;
and (5) whether the claimant is able to do any other work,
considering RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-iv). If there ...