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Saldierna v. Berryhill

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

September 5, 2017

KARLA LYNN SALDIERNA, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TERRENCE W. BOYLE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. [DE 17, 19]. A hearing on this matter was held on August 30, 2017, in Raleigh, North Carolina. [DE 24]. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Commissioner is reversed.

         BACKGROUND

         On December 11, 2012, plaintiff filed an application for Social Security Disability Insurance. Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of May 1, 2012, due to the following conditions: severe venous insufficiency, degenerative disc disease ("DDD") of the spine, and morbid obesity. [Tr. 17]. Plaintiffs application was denied both initially and upon reconsideration. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on July 9, 2014, to consider plaintiffs claims de novo. [Tr. 32-51]. On September 23, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled. [Tr. 15-26]. The Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for a review of the ALJ's decision [Tr. 1-3], thereby rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. On April 8, 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). [DE5].

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A district court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the correct legal standard was applied 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).

         Under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 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).

         The ALJ engages in a sequential five-step evaluation process to make an initial disability determination. 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). If a decision regarding the claimant's disability can be made at any step of the process, the ALJ's inquiry ceases. 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. At step three, the ALJ compares the claimant's impairment to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed, or equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). However, if the 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).

         In making an RFC finding, the ALJ's 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 her limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). Moreover, an RFC finding should reflect the claimant's ability to perform sustained work-related activities in a work setting on regular and continuing basis, meaning eight-hours per day, five days per week. SSR 96-8p; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 562 (4th Cir. 2006).

         At step four, the ALJ considers a claimant's RFC to determine whether she can perform past relevant work ("PRW") despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If not, 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 work. Id. To determine what occupations are available that a claimant could perform, the ALJ relies on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") including its companion publication, Selected Characteristics of Occupations Defined in the Revised Dictionary of ...


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