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Baran v. Berryhill

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

August 7, 2017

NATALIE D. BARAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. [DE 17, 19]. A hearing on this matter was held in Raleigh, North Carolina on July 25, 2017. [DE 25]. For the reasons discussed below, this matter is REMANDED for further consideration by the Commissioner.


         Plaintiff has previous work experience as an office manager from 1994 to 2007, a waitress in 2009, and a chef in 2010. Plaintiff asserts that she stopped working due to insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus with neuropathy, fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Plaintiff has alleged an onset date of December 15, 2009.

         On August 5, 2011, plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Act. Plaintiffs applications were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing to consider plaintiffs claims de novo and, on March 12, 2013, issued a decision denying plaintiffs claim. Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision. On May 12, 2014, the Appeals Council issued an order for another hearing. A second hearing was held before a different ALJ on December 3, 2014, and resulted in another unfavorable decision on January 16, 2015. Plaintiff again requested a review of the ALJ's decision, but was denied by the Appeals Council on May 7, 2016, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On June 10, 2016, plaintiff filed a complaint with the court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to the determination of whether the Commissioner employed the correct legal standard and whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and citation omitted).

         An individual is considered disabled if she is unable "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § l382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that an individual:

shall be determined to be under a disability only if h[er] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [s]he is not only unable to do h[er] previous work but cannot, considering h[er] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.

42U.S.C. § l382c(a)(3)(B).

         In making an initial disability determination, the ALJ engages in a sequential five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see Johnson, A7>A F.3d at 653. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The ALJ's inquiry ceases if a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of the process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4).

         When evaluating adults, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity the ALJ denies the claim at step one. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her from performing basic work activities. Id. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1). If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. Id. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment then, at step four, the claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") is assessed to determine whether plaintiff can perform her past work despite her impairments. Id. When assessing a claimant's RFC, the ALJ is to consider both severe and non-severe impairments, and any combination thereof, taking into account both objective medical evidence as well as subjective complaints of pain and limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e). If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work ("PRW"), the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant-based on her age, work experience, and RFC-can make an adjustment to perform other substantial gainful work. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant cannot perform other work, then she is found to be disabled. Id.


         In the present case, the ALJ's January 16, 2015, decision found that the plaintiff had the RFC to perform light work, ...

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