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Smith v. Berryhill

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

September 26, 2017

DEBRA SMITH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 9] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 11].


         The Plaintiff Debra Smith protectively filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits and an application for supplemental security income on April 30, 2014, alleging an onset date of March 28, 2014.[1] [Transcript (“T.”) 246, 253]. The Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. [T. 134, 168]. Upon the Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on October 26, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge Sherman D. Schwartzberg (“ALJ Schwartzberg”), at which time the Plaintiff and a vocational expert (VE) testified. On November 16, 2015, ALJ Schwartzberg issued a decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. [T. 19-32]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. 1-8]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, see 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). The Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4thCir. 1986).

         The Social Security Act provides that “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of any Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Fourth Circuit has defined “substantial evidence” as “more than a scintilla and [doing] more than creat[ing] a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401).

         The Court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if it disagrees with the Commissioner's decision, so long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support the final decision below. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).


         In determining whether or not a claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential process. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. If the claimant's case fails at any step, the ALJ does not go any further and benefits are denied. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         First, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the applicant. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920. Second, the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any impairment or combination thereof which significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is shown and the claimant is not disabled. Id. Third, if the impairment meets or equals one of the listed impairments of Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulation 4, the claimant is disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. Fourth, if the impairment does not meet the criteria above but is still a severe impairment, then the ALJ reviews the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) and the physical and mental demands of work done in the past. If the claimant can still perform that work, then a finding of not disabled is mandated. Id. Fifth, if the claimant has a severe impairment but cannot perform past relevant work, then the ALJ will consider whether the applicant's residual functional capacity, age, education, and past work experience enable the performance of other work. If so, then the claimant is not disabled. Id.


         In addressing the Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2015, and that she has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of January 14, 2015. [T. 24]. The ALJ then found that the medical evidence established that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: Type II diabetes mellitus, degenerative disc disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, anxiety, and depression. [T. 24-25]. The ALJ determined that none of the Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, met or equaled a listing. [T. 25-26]. The ALJ then assessed the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) [T. 26-30], finding that the Plaintiff had the RFC to perform simple unskilled light work with the following limitations:

[The Plaintiff] can stand and walk four hours in an eight-hour workday, sit six hours in an eight-hour workday, occasionally perform posturals, never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds, [have] no exposure to hazards (heights, machinery, etc.) and vibrations, and [have] occasional contact with the public, supervisors and co-workers.

[T. 26]. The ALJ then determined that the Plaintiff has past relevant work as a census taker, an administrative assistant, and a sales person. Based on this RFC, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff has the ability to return to her past job as a census taker, as this work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the Plaintiff's RFC. [T. 30-32]. In the alternative, the ALJ found that considering the Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the Plaintiff also can perform. [T. 31]. The ALJ therefore concluded ...

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