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Carlton v. Berryhill

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

September 28, 2017

RACHEL ELIZABETH CARLTON, 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, [D.E. 16, 18]. A hearing on this matter was held in Raleigh, North Carolina on August 30, 2017. [D.E. 22]. For the reasons discussed below, this matter is REMANDED for further consideration by the Commissioner.

         BACKGROUND

         On November 26, 2012, Plaintiff filed applications for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act ("Act") and supplemental security income benefits under Title XVI of the Act. [Tr. 12]. Plaintiff claimed that she was unable to work because of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease ("COPD"), emphysema, chronic bronchitis, vertigo, status post colon surgery, arterial plaque, high cholesterol, chronic back pain, osteoporosis, numbness in feet, swelling in feet, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. [Tr. 234], Plaintiff further alleged a disability onset date of March 1, 2008. [Tr. 235]. Plaintiffs applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration. See [Tr. 131-47]. An Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") held a hearing on January 15, 2015, to consider plaintiffs claims de novo. [Tr. 25-45].

         On February 13, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs claims. [Tr. 12-20]. On June 22, 2016, the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review, and the ALJ's decision became the Commissioner's final decision. [Tr. 1-6]. On August 15, 2016, plaintiff filed a complaint seeking judicial review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). [D.E. 6].

         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 defined as "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 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). Further:

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). Ifa 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 and five days per week. See 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 the available occupations that a claimant could perform, the ALJ relies on the Dictionary ofOccupational Titles ("DOT"). If ...


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