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Norman v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 8, 2017

MICHAEL RAY NORMAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          L. PATRICK AULD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Michael Ray Norman, brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Docket Entry 2.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative record (Docket Entry 8 (cited herein as “Tr.__ ”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 10, 13; see also Docket Entry 11 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 14 (Defendant's Memorandum); Docket Entry 15 (Plaintiff's Reply)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should remand this matter for an award of benefits.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for SSI. (Tr. 338-43.) Upon denial of that application initially (Tr. 172-85, 219-22) and on reconsideration (Tr. 186-200, 228-37), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 238-40). Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 123-71.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff qualified as disabled under the Act since May 13, 2012, the alleged onset date. (Tr. 201-12.) The Appeals Council thereafter issued a notice (Tr. 284-88) that it planned to “set aside the favorable hearing decision and send [Plaintiff's] case back to an [ALJ] for more action and a new decision” (Tr. 285). After considering argument and new evidence submitted by Plaintiff's counsel (see Tr. 458-59), the Appeals Council entered an order remanding the case to an ALJ for further proceedings. (Tr. 213-19.)

         Plaintiff, his attorney, a medical expert (“ME”), and a VE attended the second hearing. (Tr. 53-122.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under Act. (Tr. 7-27.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6, 48-51, 479-82), thereby making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 26, 2012, the application date.
2. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: status post deep laceration to the right wrist with repair; status post left ankle injury and surgical repair; knee pain due to internal derangement of the knee; chondromalacia; borderline intellectual functioning; substance addiction; r/o mood disorder; and r/o anti-social personality.
. . .
3. [Plaintiff's] impairments, including the substance abuse disorder, meet section 12.04 (Affective Disorders) of 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
. . .
4. If [Plaintiff] stopped the substance use, the remaining limitations would cause more than a minimal impact on [Plaintiff's] ability to perform basic work activities; therefore, [Plaintiff] would continue to have a severe impairment or combination of impairments.
5. If [Plaintiff] stopped the substance use, [Plaintiff] would not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the impairments listed in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
. . .
6. If [Plaintiff] stopped the substance use, [Plaintiff] would have the residual functional capacity to perform light work . . . except that he is limited to frequent but not continuous pushing and pulling with the right upper extremity with no limitation in pushing or pulling with the left extremity. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs but never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can engage in occasional balancing, stooping, crouching, and crawling. He can engage in handling and fingering with the right hand that is frequent but not continuous. There are no manipulative limitations with the left upper extremity. He should avoid concentrated exposure to the operational control of moving machinery and working at unprotected heights. He is also limited to performing simple routine repetitive tasks in a low stress work setting that involves only occasional changes in the work setting and has no pace or production requirements. He can handle occasional interaction with the public and coworkers and can respond appropriately to supervision.
. . .
7. If [Plaintiff] stopped the substance use, [Plaintiff] would be unable to perform past relevant work.
. . .
11. If [Plaintiff] stopped the substance use, considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there would be a significant number of jobs in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.
. . .
12. The substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability because [Plaintiff] would not be disabled if he stopped the substance use. Because the substance use disorder is a contributing factor material to the determination of disability, [Plaintiff] has not been disabled within the meaning of the . . . [Act] at any time from the date the application was filed through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 13-27 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)

         II. DISCUSSION

         Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of [the Court's] review of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. ...


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