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Dixon v. Berryhill

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

September 25, 2017

ERIC M. DIXON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          Martin Reidinger United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 6] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 8]. As more fully explained below, the Court will grant the Plaintiff's motion and remand this matter.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The Plaintiff, Eric M. Dixon (“Plaintiff”) asserts that his depression, panic attacks, and migraines constitute severe mental and physical impairments under the Social Security Act (the “Act”) rendering him disabled. On June 10, 2014, the Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits under Title II and Part A of Title XVIII of the Act, alleging an onset date of May 8, 2014. [Transcript (“T.”) at 193]. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [T. at 105, 110]. Upon Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on October 22, 2015, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [T. at 32-74]. Present at the hearing were the Plaintiff; Daniel Bridgman, the Plaintiff's attorney; Angela Guise Dixon, a witness; and a vocational expert (“VE”). [Id.]. On December 29, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision, wherein the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was not disabled. [T. at 11-27]. On March 23, 2016, the Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review [T. at 2], thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). “When examining [a Social Security Administration] disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “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) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” the Court defers to the ALJ's decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[t]he 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.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013).

         III. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         A “disability” entitling a claimant to benefits under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is “[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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration Regulations set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). “If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps.” Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first four steps. Id.

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant's application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the claimant. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920). If not, the case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, which significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is established and the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an administrative assessment of “the most” a claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing basis” notwithstanding the claimant's medically determinable impairments and the extent to which those impairments affect the claimant's ability to perform work-related functions. SSR 96-8p; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c); 404.943(c); 416.945.

         At step four, the claimant must show that his or her limitations prevent the claimant from performing his or her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634. If the claimant can still perform his or her past work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id. Otherwise, the case progresses to the fifth step where the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that, given the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the claimant can perform alternative work which exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Id.; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006). “The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her burden at step five, the claimant is not disabled and the application for benefits must be denied. Id. Otherwise, the claimant is entitled to benefits. In this case, the ALJ rendered a determination adverse to the Plaintiff at the fifth step.

         IV. THE ALJ'S DECISION

         At step one, the ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date, May 8, 2014. [T. at 13]. At step two, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has severe impairments including migraines, depression, and panic attacks. [Id.]. At step three, the ALJ determined that the Plaintiff does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the Listings. [Id.]. The ALJ then determined that the Plaintiff, notwithstanding his impairments, has the RFC:

[T]o perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant needs the option to sit/stand with ability to change positions twice an hour. The claimant can have no public contact and only occasional interaction with coworkers and supervisors. The claimant is further limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks at a non-production pace with no complex decisionmaking, crisis situations or constant change in routine.

[Id. at 16].

         The ALJ identified Plaintiff's past relevant work as a mail handler, a stacker operator, and mail supervisor. [Id. at 25]. The ALJ observed, however, that because the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity limitation “to simple, routine, repetitive tasks” is “inconsistent with his semi-skilled to skilled past relevant work, ” his “past relevant work is precluded.” [Id.]. Accordingly, at step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was unable to perform past relevant work. [Id.].

         With the Plaintiff having carried his burden through the first four steps, the ALJ then assessed whether, at step five, the Commissioner could meet her burden of showing the availability of jobs Plaintiff is able to do, given his RFC. [Id. at 25-6]. Based upon the testimony of the VE, the ALJ concluded that, considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there were other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that he was able to perform, including parking lot garage cashier, small parts assembler, and laundry folder. [Id. at 26]. The ALJ therefore concluded that the Plaintiff was not “disabled” as defined by the Social Security Act from May 8, 2014, the alleged onset date, through December 29, 2015, the date of the ALJ's decision. [Id.].

         V. ...


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