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Starnes v. Berryhill

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

June 1, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge

         THIS 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. § 405(g).

         Having 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 AFFIRMED.


         On 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).

         The ALJ 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.

         (Tr. 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).

         On 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[2] 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.


         Pursuant 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).

         A 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.

         III. ANALYSIS

         When 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 ...

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