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Pridgen v. Berryhill

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

August 18, 2017

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, [D.E. 16, 18] filed in conjunction with accompanying memoranda in support [D.E. 17, 19]. A hearing on this matter was held in Raleigh, North Carolina on July 25, 2017. [D.E. 25]. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs motion is DENIED and defendant's motion is GRANTED. The decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff has past relevant work ("PRW") as a painter. [Tr. 87]. Plaintiff asserts that she stopped working due to back problems, arthritis, asthma, and depression. [Tr. 125]. On the j alleged disability onset date of August 11, 2012, plaintiff was 33 years old. [D.E. 17] at 1.

         On November 30, 2012, 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. [Tr. 151-52]. Plaintiffs applications were denied both initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 194-201, 202-11]. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on December 4, 2014, to consider plaintiffs claims de novo. [Tr. 94-124]. On February 6, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs claim. [Tr. 78-88]. On March 3, 2015, plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision. [Tr. 74]. On June 4, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for review [Tr. 1-7], thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On June 27, 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), 1383(c)(3). [DE5].


         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to a 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. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides:

an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if [her] physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that [she] is not only unable to do [her] previous work but cannot, considering [her] age, education, and work experience, engage in any other line of substantial gainful work ....

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(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, 434 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 claimant's disability can be made at any step of the process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         When evaluating adults, the ALJ denies the claim at step one if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step two, the ALJ denies the claim if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting her from performing basic work activities. Id. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at step three; rather, the ALJ compares the claimant's impairment to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 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 without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ then makes a residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e).

         The ALJ's RFC finding considers both severe and non-severe impairments, and any combination thereof, and takes into account both objective medical evidence as well as subjective complaints of pain and limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e). The ALJ further considers the claimant's ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of accomplishing work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(4). An RFC finding is meant to reflect the most that a claimant can do, despite his or her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1).

         At step four, the ALJ considers a claimant's RFC to determine whether he or she can perform past work despite the claimant's impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If the claimant cannot perform past work, the ALJ proceeds to step five of the analysis: establishing whether the claimant-based on her RFC, age, education, and work experience-can make an adjustment to perform other (substantial gainful) work. Id. When determining what occupations are available that a claimant could perform, an ALJ relies on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) including its companion publication, Selected Characteristics of Occupations Defined in the ...

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