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Findell v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

October 11, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Melissa Findell (“Plaintiff”) brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on January 16, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 29, 2008. (Tr. at 14, 157-64.)[2] Her claim was denied initially (Tr. at 72-81, 93-96), and that determination was upheld on reconsideration (Tr. At 82-92, 106-13). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. at 114-15.) Plaintiff attended the subsequent hearing on February 18, 2015, along with her attorney and an impartial vocational expert. (Tr. at 14.) The ALJ issued a decision on April 2, 2015, concluding that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act from her alleged onset date of May 29, 2008 through her date last insured on March 31, 2013. (Tr. at 27.) On August 27, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of that decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. at 1-5.)


         Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of [the] review of [such an administrative] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). “The courts are not to try the case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal brackets omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “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 [ALJ].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. “The issue before [the reviewing court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that in administrative proceedings, “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability.” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). In this context, “disability” means 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.'” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[3]

         “The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)). “Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy.” Id.

         A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is ‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first two steps, and establishes at step three that the impairment “equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the regulations, ” then “the claimant is disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., “[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual function[al] capacity (‘RFC').” Id. at 179.[4] Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can “perform past relevant work”; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which “requires the Commissioner to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite [the claimant's] impairments.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, the ALJ must decide “whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job.” Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the Government cannot carry its “evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community, ” the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in “substantial gainful activity” since May 29, 2008, her alleged onset date, through March 31, 2013, her date last insured. (Tr. at 16.) Plaintiff therefore met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that through March 31, 2013, Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: “cervical degenerative disc disease with a history of an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion at ¶ 4-C5 and C5-C5 [sic]; bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS); fibromyalgia; and right plantar fasciitis with a history of internal fixation surgery.” (Tr. at 16.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, either individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 18.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and determined that she could perform light work with myriad additional postural and manipulative limitations. (Tr. at 19.) Specifically, the ALJ found that through the date last insured, Plaintiff:

had the residual functional capacity to perform unskilled light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except that the claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but can never climb ropes, ladders, or scaffolds. She can occasionally bend, balance, crouch, and stoop, but can never kneel or crawl. She cannot use foot pedals, or push and/or pull with her bilateral lower extremities. The claimant can frequently handle, finger, and feel with her left upper extremity and can occasionally handle, finger, and feel with her right upper extremity. She can frequently reach in all directions, including overhead reaching with the bilateral upper extremities. Lastly, the claimant requires the opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing every 2 hours at the workstation, and can stand and/or walk for a total of 4 hours in an 8-hour workday.

(Tr. at 19.) Based on this determination, the ALJ determined at step four of the analysis that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (Tr. at 25-26.) However, the ALJ found at step five that, given Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert as to these factors, she could perform other jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. at 26-27.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 27.)

         Plaintiff now contends that the ALJ erred in two respects. First, she argues that the ALJ “erred by failing to identify and include in her decision a reasonable explanation for how the apparent conflict was resolved between the testimony of the vocational expert . . . and the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) regarding the handling and fingering requirements of the jobs cited at Step 5 of the Sequential Evaluation Process.” (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #10] at 1.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ “erred when assessing the ...

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