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Perry v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 21, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1]Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff William Henry Perry (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his claim for Supplemental Security Income under Title XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


         Plaintiff protectively filed his application for Supplemental Security Income on July 29, 2013, alleging disability as of that date. (Tr. at 17, 145-54.)[2] His application was denied initially (Tr. at 52-65, 88-91), and that decision was upheld upon reconsideration (Tr. at 66-85, 93-95). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 102.) Plaintiff attended the subsequent hearing on March 15, 2016, along with his attorney and an impartial vocational expert. (Tr. at 17.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 31), and, on July 14, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 7-10).[3]


         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] review of [such an administrative] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). “The courts are not to try the case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal brackets omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (internal brackets omitted). “The issue before [the reviewing court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that in administrative proceedings, “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability.” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). In this context, “disability” means the “‘inability 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 12 months.'” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[4]

         “The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)). “Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy.” Id.

         A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is ‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first two steps, and establishes at step three that the impairment “equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the regulations, ” then “the claimant is disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., “[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual function[al] capacity (‘RFC').” Id. at 179.[5] Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can “perform past relevant work”; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which “requires the Commissioner to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite [the claimant's] impairments.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, the ALJ must decide “whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job.” Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the Government cannot carry its “evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community, ” the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his application date. Plaintiff therefore met his burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine; peripheral neuropathy; mild carpal tunnel syndrome; obesity; an affective disorder; an anxiety disorder; cannabis abuse; and alcohol use.

(Tr. at 19.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, singly or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 20-22.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and determined that he

has the residual functional capacity to perform light work (i.e., lift, carry, push and pull up to 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently as well as sit, stand and/or walk up to six hours each during an eight-hour workday) as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b) except he must have the flexibility to alternate between sitting and standing every 30 minutes; he must never climb or balance; he could occasionally stoop; he could frequently kneel, crouch and crawl; he could occasionally reach overhead with bilateral extremities; he could frequently handle and finger with both upper extremities; he must avoid all exposure to hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery; he could understand, remember and carry out simple instructions, which is defined to mean activity that is consistent with a reasoning level of “two” or “three” as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles; he could sustain attention and concentration sufficient enough to carry out those simple instructions over the course of an eight-hour workday; he could work in occupations that require occasional contact with co-workers, supervisors, and the public; he could work in a low stress setting, which is specifically defined to mean: no fast paced production, only simple work related decisions, and few or no changes in the work setting.

(Tr. at 22.)[6] At step four, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as an electrician helper. (Tr. at 29.) However, the ALJ concluded at step five that, given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, along with the testimony of the vocational expert regarding those factors, he could perform other jobs available in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. at 30-31.)

         Plaintiff now challenges the ALJ's RFC assessment in two respects. First, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ failed to properly weigh opinion evidence, including (1) the opinion of Plaintiff's treating physician, Dr. John Scagnelli, (2) the assessments of the non-examining state agency physicians, and (3) a favorable Medicaid determination. Second, Plaintiff appears to dispute the ALJ's adverse credibility finding, although he frames it as a more general challenge to the RFC.[7] After a thorough review of the record, the Court finds that neither of these contentions merits remand.

         A. Opinion Evidence

         1. Dr. ...

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