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Jackson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

October 20, 2017

WENDY JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          L. Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Wendy Jackson, brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Docket Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative record (Docket Entry 6 (cited herein as “Tr. ”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 9, 11; see also Docket Entry 10 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 12 (Defendant's Memorandum); Docket Entry 13 (Plaintiff's Reply)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for SSI. (Tr. 167-77.) Upon denial of that application initially (Tr. 54-63, 94-102) and on reconsideration (Tr. 64-74, 106-15), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 116). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 10-53.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 75-85.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 4-7, 166), thereby making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] has [not] engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 11, 2013, the application date.
2. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: hypertension; [deep vein thrombosis (“DVT”)]; hypercholesterolemia; history of stasis ulcers to the bilateral lower extremities; and history of right foot and ankle fractures.
. . .
3. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
. . .
4. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work . . . with exceptions: She can occasionally climb stairs and ramps. She cannot climb ropes, ladders, and scaffolds. She can frequently bend. She can occasionally balance, crouch, and stoop. She cannot use foot pedals with her bilateral lower extremities. She cannot push and/or pull with her bilateral lower extremities. She requires the opportunity to alternate between sitting and standing every two hours at the workstation. She can stand and walk for a total of four hours during an eight-hour workday. She can sit for six hours during an eight-hour workday.
. . .
5. [Plaintiff] has no past relevant work.
. . .
9. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.
. . .
10. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the . . . Act, since February 11, 2013, the date the application was filed.

(Tr. 80-84 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)[2]

         II. DISCUSSION

         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 Court's] review of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the extremely limited review standard.

         A. Standard of Review

         “[C]ourts are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, the Court “must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal brackets and quotation marks 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, 401 (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) (brackets and internal 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 [C]ourt should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].” 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 [Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before [the 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).

         When confronting that issue, the Court must take note that “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, 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] “To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration has . . . detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, and work experience in addition to [the claimant's] medical condition.” Id. “These regulations establish a ‘sequential evaluation process' to determine whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.

         This sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to five steps: “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 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 [the claimant's] past work or (5) any other work.” Albright v. Commissioner of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999).[4] A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in the SEP forecloses an award and ends the inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity.' ...


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