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Hall v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017

SANDRA NOWELL HALL, Plaintiff/Claimant,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert B. Jones, Jr. United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-20, DE-22] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Sandra Nowell Hall ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability and Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings is allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner is upheld.

         I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Claimant protectively filed an application for a period of disability and DIB on February 12, 2013, alleging disability beginning November 25, 2011. (R. 24, 200-01). Her claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 24, 94-129). A hearing before the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on April 6, 2015, at which Claimant was represented by counsel and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 44-93). On September 24, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 21-43). On July 12, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review and incorporated additional evidence into the record. (R. 1-6). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the. now-final administrative decision.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "The findings of the Commissioner ... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         III. DISABILITY EVALUATION PROCESS

         The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:

The claimant (1) must not be engaged in "substantial gainful activity, " i.e., currently working; and (2) must have a "severe" impairment that (3) meets or exceeds [in severity] the "listings" of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual functional capacity to (4) perform ... past work or (5) any other work.

Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "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 of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Id.

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. § 404.1520a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. § 404.1520a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the ALJ erred in considering the opinion evidence and in considering the Global Assessment of Functioning ("GAF") scores. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-21] at 12-22.

         IV. FACTUAL HISTORY

         A. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the above-described sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Claimant "not disabled" as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Claimant was no longer engaged in substantial gainful employment. (R. 26). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the following severe impairments: carpal tunnel syndrome, obesity, lumbago, sacrolilitis, and major depressive disorder. Id. The ALJ also found Claimant's hypertension to be a non-severe impairment and that Claimant's allegations of fibromyalgia were not supported by objective findings or testing, such that fibromyalgia was a non-medically determinable impairment. (R. 27). However, at step three, the ALJ concluded these impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, (R. 27-29). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments have resulted in mild limitations in her activities of daily living, and moderate limitations in social functioning and concentration, persistence, or pace with no episodes of decompensation. (R. 28-29).

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's RFC, finding Claimant had the ability to perform light work[1] with the following limitations: occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes, and scaffolds; must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation; can frequently handle and finger bilaterally; and can frequently reach in all directions with left upper extremity, but occasionally reach overhead. (R. 30). The ALJ also found that Claimant can understand, remember, and carry out unskilled, simple, repetitive, and routine tasks in a non-production pace setting for two hours at a time with normal breaks; is able to adapt to occasional simple changes; and may have superficial contact with others, meaning successful performance of job duties involves work primarily with things and not people. Id. In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations not fully credible. (R. 33).

         At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work as a parts manager or parts salesperson. (R. 36). Nonetheless, at step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined Claimant is capable of adjusting to the demands of other ...


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