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Hartsog v. Berryhill

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

August 25, 2017

NANCY BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.


          Max O. Cogburn, Jr. United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the court on the parties' opposing Motions for Summary Judgment (#8 and #11). The matter is ripe for review. Having carefully considered such motions and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following findings, conclusions, and Order.


         I. Administrative History

         Plaintiff applied for disability and disability insurance benefits in November 2012, alleging that he became disabled on September 15, 2009. (Tr. 10). Her claim was denied at the initial and reconsideration levels of review. (Tr. 10). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). A hearing was held before Theodore W. Grippo, an ALJ, on August 14, 2014, at which plaintiff had an attorney representative present. (Tr. 26). In a November 26, 2014 written decision, the ALJ denied the plaintiff's claim. (Tr. 16-27). Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 10-12). The request for review was denied by the Appeals Council on December 1, 2015 (Tr. 1), rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.981. Plaintiff has exhausted her available administrative remedies and the case is now ripe for judicial review under Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Factual Background

         The ALJ's findings of fact are adopted and incorporated herein as if fully set forth. Such findings are referenced in the substantive discussion which follows.

         III. Standard of Review

         The only issues on review are whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Review by a federal court is not de novo, Smith v. Schwieker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); rather, inquiry is limited to whether there was “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (internal citations omitted). Even if the undersigned were to find that a preponderance of the evidence weighed against the Commissioner's decision, the Commissioner's decision would have to be affirmed if it was supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456. The Fourth Circuit has explained substantial evidence review as follows:

the district court reviews the record to ensure that the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence and that its legal findings are free of error. If the reviewing court decides that the ALJ's decision is not supported by substantial evidence, it may affirm, modify, or reverse the ALJ's ruling with or without remanding the cause for a rehearing. A necessary predicate to engaging in substantial evidence review is a record of the basis for the ALJ's ruling. The record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence. If the reviewing court has no way of evaluating the basis for the ALJ's decision, then the proper course, except in rare circumstances, is to remand to the agency for additional investigation or explanation.

Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

         IV. Substantial Evidence

         A. Introduction

         The court has read the transcript of plaintiff's administrative hearing, closely read the decision of the ALJ, and reviewed the relevant exhibits contained in the extensive administrative record. The issue is not whether a court might have reached a different conclusion had it been presented with the same testimony and evidentiary materials, but whether the decision of the administrative law judge is supported by substantial evidence. The court finds that the ALJ's decision in large part was supported by substantial evidence. Nonetheless, the court is “left to guess” in part and must refrain from re-weighing evidence here.

         B. Sequential Evaluation

         A five-step process, known as “sequential” review, is used by the Commissioner in determining whether a Social Security claimant is disabled. The Commissioner evaluates a disability claim under Title XVI pursuant to the following five-step analysis:

a. An individual who is working and engaging in substantial gainful activity will not be found to be “disabled” regardless of medical findings;
b. An individual who does not have a “severe impairment” will not be found to be disabled;
c. If an individual is not working and is suffering from a severe impairment that meets the durational requirement and that “meets or equals a listed impairment in Appendix 1” of Subpart P of Regulations No. 4, a finding of “disabled” will be made without consideration of vocational factors;
d. If, upon determining residual functional capacity, the Commissioner finds that an individual is capable of performing work he or she has done in the past, a finding of “not disabled” must be made;
e. If an individual's residual functional capacity precludes the performance of past work, other factors including age, education, and past work experience, must be considered to determine if other work can be performed.

20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)-(f). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

         C. The Administrative Decision

         At step one, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had engaged in substantial gainful activity during the months of January to March in 2011. (Tr. 12).[1] The ALJ further ntoed that there had been continuous 12-month periods that the claimant did not engage in substantial gainful activity. (Tr. 12). At step two, the ALJ found that the plaintiff had the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), degenerative disc disease, and “tendonitis of the left elbow.”[2] (Tr. 13). At step three, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 15).

         The ALJ concluded that the plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform medium work, with several limitations. (Tr. 15). The RFC's limitations included only occasionally climbing ladders, ropes, and scaffolds, and frequently climbing ramps and stairs. Id. The ALJ further limited the plaintiff's RFC to frequently balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling. (Tr. 15).

         At step four, the ALJ found that plaintiff Hartsog could perform his past relevant work. (Tr. 20). Accordingly, the ALJ determined that the plaintiff had not been under a disability within the meaning of the Social Security Act, 20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g), from the application date September 15, 2009 to the date of the decision. (Tr. 26).

         D. Discussion

         The court has closely read plaintiff's Memorandum of Law (#8-1) supporting his Motion for Summary Judgment. Plaintiff has made the following assignments of error:

         I. Remand is required in light of plaintiff's subsequent application;

         II. The ALJ's determination that plaintiff could return to his past work was not ...

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