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Powell v. Berryhill

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

September 29, 2017

JOHN E. POWELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Martin Reidinger United States District Judge.

         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 John E. Powell filed an application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits on August 2, 2012, alleging an onset date of April 1, 2011. [Transcript (“T.”) 16]. The Plaintiff later amended his alleged onset date to July 1, 2012. [T. 16, 18, 44-45]. The Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. [T. 16, 123, 130]. Upon the Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on October 22, 2014, before Administrative Law Judge Thaddeus J. Hess (“ALJ Hess”). [T. 16, 40-80]. The Plaintiff testified at this hearing, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). [Id.]. On January 7, 2015, ALJ Hess issued a decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. [T. 16-34]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. 1-5]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now 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 this case, the ALJ's determination was made at the fifth step.


         In denying the Plaintiff's claim, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2015, and that he has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged onset date of July 1, 2011. [T. 18]. The ALJ then found that the medical evidence established that the Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, asthma, hypertension, obesity, anxiety and major depressive disorder. [Id.]. The ALJ specifically found that the Plaintiff's other claimed conditions, including migraine headaches, traumatic arthritis of right ankle, allergic rhinitis, chest pain, MRSA infection, gastroesophageal reflux disease (“GERD”), headaches, dizziness, vertigo, left flank pain, back pain, and attention deficit disorder, did not result in any significant functional limitations or were not medically determinable from the record, and were therefore not severe impairments. [T. 18-19]. The ALJ determined that none of Plaintiff's impairments, either singly or in combination, met or equaled a listing. [T. 19]. The ALJ then assessed the Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (RFC) [T. 22-33], finding as follows:

[T]he [Plaintiff] has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that he can never climb ladders/ropes/scaffolds; can only occasionally climb ramp/stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl; and must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards such as unprotected heights and moving machinery, extreme cold/hear and dust fumes, gases, etc.; [h]e is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks with no more than occasional decision making with ...

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