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Harrison v. Berryhill

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

June 26, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN United States District Judge

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings. (DE 24, 28). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1) and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b), United States Magistrate Judge Kimberly A. Swank entered a memorandum and recommendation (“M&R”), wherein it is recommended that this 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, this court adopts the M&R as its own, grants defendant's motion, denies plaintiff's motion, and affirms defendant's final decision.


         On March 1, 2011, plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income, alleging disability since July 1, 2009. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Plaintiff filed a request for hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), who, after a January 8, 2013, hearing, denied plaintiff's claim by decision entered January 29, 2013. Following the ALJ's denial of her application, plaintiff timely filed a request for review with the Appeals Council, which vacated the ALJ's decision and remanded the case for a new hearing before an ALJ. On September 24, 2014, the ALJ conducted another hearing, and on January 12, 2015, again issued an unfavorable ruling. The Appeals Council denied plaintiff's request for review on March 4, 2016. Plaintiff then filed a complaint in this court on May 10, 2016, seeking review of defendant's decision.


         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 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 March 1, 2011, her application date. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (“COPD”)/asthma, alcohol dependence in reported remission, and an adjustment disorder with depressed mood. 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 those in the Listing of Impairments (“Listings”), found in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. Before proceeding to step four, the ALJ determined that during the relevant time period, plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform light exertional work, as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b), with exceptions.[1] In particular, plaintiff should avoid concentrated exposure to temperature extremes of heat and cold, poorly ventilated areas, and pulmonary irritants, such as dust, odors, and gases. Further, the ALJ noted that plaintiff is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks in a low-stress job, which was defined as having only occasional changes in the work setting, and she should not perform any fast-paced production rate or pace work. In making this assessment, the ALJ noted that although plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could be expected to cause some of the alleged symptoms, her statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms were “not entirely credible.” (Tr. 24). At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a mail sorter. In an alternative finding, at step five, the ALJ found that in light of plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform. Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled under the terms of the Social Security Act from her application date, March 1, 2011, through the date of the ALJ's decision, January 12, 2015.

         B. Analysis

         Plaintiff objects to the M&R's finding that her combination of mental impairments did not meet or medically equal Listing 12.02. See Objection (DE 35) at 3-5. In particular, plaintiff contends that she satisfied her burden of proof at step three in the sequential evaluation because she met Listing 12.02 in two ways: 1) through criteria in paragraphs (A)(2) and (B)(2)-(3) and 2) through criteria in paragraphs in (A)(3) and (B)(2)-(3).[2] Id. at 5.

         The Listings describe impairments that are considered “severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity, regardless of his or her age, education, or work experience.” 20 C.F.R. 416.925(a). In the Listings, “[e]ach impairment is defined in terms of several specific medical signs, symptoms, or laboratory test results.” Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 530 (1990). To satisfy the requirements of the Listings, ...

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