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Keller v. Berryhill

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

August 28, 2017

SUSAN E. KELLER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Susan E. Keller's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10) filed on May 22, 2017, and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12) filed on June 5, 2017. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”).

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10), GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12), and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI Social Security benefits on October 19, 2012, alleging disability due to back problems, stomach problems, gall bladder surgery, hernia repair, irritable bowel syndrome, and hip problems. (Tr. 239, 329). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 152, 163), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 173). The hearing commenced on June 4, 2015, and on July 17, 2015, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application. (Tr. 43, 65).

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 57). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date and that she had severe impairments of headaches, ventral and inguinal hernia, cervical posterior disc bulge, central stenosis, piriformis syndrome, osteoarthritis, hypertension, anxiety, depression, and obesity (Tr. 48); however, those impairments did not meet or medically equal a per se disabled medical listing under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 (Tr. 48-50). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work with the following limitations:

[S]itting for up to six hours during an eight-hour workday and standing and/or walking for up to two hours during an eight-hour work day with the use of an assistive device to ambulate. [Plaintiff] must be allowed to alternate between sitting and standing up to two times an hour. [Plaintiff] is limited to occasional postural activities and to frequent, but not continuous, use of her bilateral lower extremities to push, pull, and operate foot controls. [Plaintiff] can follow short and simple instructions and perform routine tasks. [Plaintiff] cannot perform work that requires a production rate or demanding pace. [Plaintiff] is able to sustain attention and concentration for up to two hours at a time . . . and must avoid workplace hazards and avoid working in environments dealing with crisis situations, complex decision-making, or constant changes in a routine setting.

(Tr. 50-1). Nevertheless, in response to a hypothetical that factored in the above limitations, a vocational expert identified various jobs Plaintiff could perform that were available in significant numbers in the economy. (Tr. 56-7). Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 57).

         Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council denied the request for review on November 3, 2016. (Tr. 1-4). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision is not based on proper legal standards and is not supported by substantial evidence as 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) requires.


         Pursuant to the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security is limited to: (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971), and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2006); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because "it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence." Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).

         Substantial evidence is "more than a scintilla and [it] must do more than create a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Richardson, 402 U.S. at 401). If this Court finds that the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and that his decision is supported by substantial evidence, the Commissioner's determination may not be capriciously overturned.

         III. ANALYSIS

         On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff makes the following assignments of error: (1) the ALJ failed to resolve an apparent conflict between the vocational expert's testimony and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”); (2) the ALJ failed to give a complete explanation of the nonexertional mental functions in the broad areas of functioning and make a complete finding as to Plaintiff's mental RFC; and (3) the ALJ failed to adequately assess ...

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