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Lemmonds v. Berryhill

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

July 3, 2017

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


          Richard L. Voorhees, United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Plaintiff Crystal Elise Lemmonds' Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 11) and Defendant Social Security Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 13). Also before the Court are Plaintiff's Objections to Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge David C. Keesler, to whom the motions were referred for recommended disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). (Docs. 15, 16).

         The Magistrate Judge, in a Memorandum and Recommendation filed February 21, 2017, recommended that Plaintiff's motion be denied, that Defendant's motion be granted, and that the Commissioner's decision be affirmed. (Doc. 15 at 11). Plaintiff filed her Objections (Doc. 16) and Defendant responded (Doc. 17). For the reasons that follow, the Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 11) is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 13) is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff seeks review of Administrative Law Judge Lawrence Levey's (“ALJ”) December 30, 2014 decision, which determined Plaintiff was not disabled under Social Security Act Title II (disability insurance benefits) or Title XVI (supplemental security income). (Transcript of the Record of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 141; see Tr. 238 (Title XVI application summary), 244 (Title II application summary)). Neither party has objected to the Magistrate Judge's statement of the procedural history of the case as set out on pages 1-3 of the Memorandum and Recommendation (“M & R”). (Doc. 15 at 1-3). The Court adopts the M & R's procedural background, supplemented by the Court as set out below.


         The Federal Magistrates Act requires a district court to “make a de novo determination of those portions of the magistrate judge's report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Accident Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)) (emphases and brackets omitted). Nonetheless, a district judge is responsible for the final determination and outcome of the case, and accordingly the undersigned has conducted a careful review of the Magistrate Judge's Memorandum and Recommendation as well as a de novo review of the matters raised in Plaintiff's Objections.

         The district court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to the following two issues: (1) whether the Commissioner's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence; and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards.[1] Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012); see 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). As long as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate the evidence in support of the Commissioner's decision, the Court should not reweigh the evidence or substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner. Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472.

         While substantial evidence is not a “large or considerable amount of evidence, ” Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is “more than a scintilla and it must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established, ” Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (citing Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)) (brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). “The substantial evidence standard ‘presupposes a zone of choice within which the decisionmakers can go either way, without interference by the courts. An administrative decision is not subject to reversal merely because substantial evidence would have supported an opposite decision.'” Dunn v. Colvin, 607 F. App'x 264, 266 (4th Cir. 2015) (ellipsis omitted) (quoting Clarke v. Bowen, 843 F.2d 271, 272-73 (8th Cir. 1988)).


         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was “disabled, ” as that term is defined for Social Security purposes, under Title II or Title XVI of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 131). To make that determination, the ALJ must proceed through a sequential five-step evaluation process.[2]The ALJ in the proceeding below concluded at Step One that Plaintiff was not engaged in substantial gainful activity, at Step Two that Plaintiff had a severe combination of impairments, and at Step Three that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 133-35). The ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe combination of impairments: degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, fibromyalgia, obesity, possible rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, substance abuse, anxiety disorder, and affective disorder. (Tr. 134). As a consequence of his determinations, the ALJ was required to proceed to Step Four. Prior to making a decision at Step Four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), finding that she could perform sedentary work with the following limitations: she required the option of alternating at her election between sitting and standing in increments of approximately 20-30 minutes; she could only occasionally utilize her lower extremities for pushing, pulling, or operation of foot controls; she could only occasionally climb ramps or stairs, balance, and stoop; she was precluded from climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds, and from kneeling, crouching, and crawling; she could engage in frequent but not constant gross and fine manipulation; and she required a low stress working environment, defined as being limited to the performance of simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements, involving only simple work-related decisions, with few, if any, changes in the workplace. (Tr. 135-37).

         At Step Four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work in light of Plaintiff's RFC. (Tr. 139). Thus, the ALJ reached Step Five, which required a determination of whether, considering Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, and work experience, she could make an adjustment to other work. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4)(v), 416.920(a)(4)(v). Finding that “there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform, ” the ALJ decided that Plaintiff was not disabled under Title II or Title XVI. (Tr. 140-41). The M & R recommended that this decision be affirmed. (Doc. 15 at 11).


         Plaintiff requests a general de novo determination of her Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and of the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 16 at 1). She further states that “[t]he grounds for [Plaintiff's] objections appear in the Memorandum filed in support of her Motion for Summary Judgment [sic], with additional grounds stated” in her Objections. (Id.). Specifically, Plaintiff's Objections are:

(1) Judge Keesler erred in affirming ALJ Levey's determination that Ms. Lemmonds can perform a limited range of sedentary work; and
(2) Judge Keesler erred in affirming ALJ Levey's improper credibility determination. (Doc. 16 at 2, 6). The Court will address ...

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