United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
RENEE M. HENSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL,  Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.
J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion
for Summary Judgment and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. Nos. 9,
9-1); and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment and
Memorandum in Support, (Doc. Nos. 11, 12). The pending
motions are ripe for adjudication.
Renee M. Henson (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial
review of Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant”
or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security
claim. In August 2012, Plaintiff applied for Disability
Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act
(“SSA”) and Supplemental Security Income under
Title XVI of the SSA. (Doc. No. 8 to 8-9: Administrative
Record (“Tr.”) at 13). Initially, Plaintiff
alleged that she became disabled on August 1, 2007 but later
amended her onset date to March 1, 2011. (Tr. 13, 30, 104).
After conducting a hearing on October 30, 2013, the
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that
Plaintiff was not disabled according to the standards of the
SSA from March 1, 2011 through December 13, 2013, the date of
the ALJ's decision. (Id. at 10-23). Plaintiff
requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals
Council, but the Appeals Council denied the request,
consequently making the ALJ's decision the
Defendant's final decision. (Id. at. 1-5).
now seeks judicial review of the ALJ's decision under
section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §
405(g). Plaintiff filed her Complaint on June 23, 2015 and a
Motion for Summary Judgment on October 30, 2015. (Doc. Nos.
1, 9). Defendant filed an Answer to Plaintiff's Complaint
on August 28, 2015 and a Motion for Summary Judgment on
January 28, 2016. (Doc. Nos. 7, 11, 12).
question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was disabled
under sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the Social Security Act.
(Tr. 13). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has
the burden of proving that she was disabled within the
meaning of the Social Security Act. Bowen v. Yuckert,
482 U.S. 137, 146 n5 (1987). Plaintiff's alleged
disability derives from both physical and mental symptoms.
Physically, Plaintiff alleged disability by way of
degenerative disc disease. (Tr. 47). Later, on appeal before
this Court, Plaintiff claims that her obesity also
contributes to her alleged disability. (Doc. No. 9-1 at 1).
Mentally, Plaintiff alleged disability due to major
depressive disorder and adjustment disorder with panic
attacks. (Tr. 47). Combined, Plaintiff argues that these
impairments limit her in “sitting, standing, lifting,
postural, regular attendance at work, stress tolerance, and
concentration, persistence and pace.” (Doc. No. 9-1 at
reviewing Plaintiff's record and conducting a hearing,
the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not suffer from a disability
as defined in the SSA. (Tr. 10-23). In reaching his
conclusion, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation
process established by the Social Security Administration for
determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. §
404.1520(a). The five steps are:
(1) whether claimant is engaged in substantial gainful
activity-if yes, not disabled;
(2) whether claimant has a severe medically determinable
physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments
that meet the duration requirement in § 404.1509-if no,
(3) whether claimant has an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals one of the
listings in appendix 1 and meets the duration requirement-if
(4) whether claimant has the residual functional capacity
(“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant
work-if yes, not disabled; and
(5) whether considering claimant's RFC, age, education,
and work experience he or she can make an adjustment to other
work-if yes, not disabled.
See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). In this
case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was
not disabled. (Tr. at 21-22).
the sequential evaluation, the ALJ first concluded that
Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity
since March 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. (Id. at
15). At the second step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff had
the following severe impairments: “back, leg, and hip
pain due to lumbar spondylosis and lumbar sacroiliac
degeneration….” (Id.). At the third
step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did 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
….” (Id. at 17).
the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and found that she
retained the capacity to perform “light work.” In
particular, the ALJ found that Plaintiff retained the RFC
“to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)
except she can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, balance,
stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl, but never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds and she should avoid concentrating
exposure to hazards.” (Id.). When making this
finding, the ALJ stated that he “considered all
symptoms and the extent to which these symptoms can
reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective
medical evidence and other evidence.” (Id.).
The ALJ further opined that he “considered opinion
evidence in accordance with the requirements of 20 CFR
404.1527 and SSRs 96-2p, 96-5p, 96-6p and 06-3p.”
fourth step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff could not perform
her past relevant work. (Id. at 21). At the fifth
and final step, the ALJ determined that, based on the
testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”) and
“considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs
that existed in significant numbers in the national economy
that [Plaintiff] could have performed.” (Id.
21-22). Therefore, the ALJ concluded that the Plaintiff was
not under a disability from March 1, 2011, through December
31, 2011, the date of the decision. (Id. at 22).
now comes before the Court requesting a reversal of
Defendant's final decision or, in the alternative, entry
of an award of benefits, or remand of her claim to Defendant
for approval of benefits or other appropriate consideration.
(Doc. No. 9-1 at 2). In doing so, Plaintiff argues that the
ALJ improperly assessed: (1) the severity of Plaintiff's
mental impairment during the step two analysis; (2)
Plaintiff's obesity and the impact it had alone and in
combination with her other impairments; (3) Plaintiff's
medical record in relation to disorders of the spine during
the step three analysis; (4) the weight given to the various
medical opinions; and (5) the credibility attributable to
Plaintiff's testimony. (Id. at 4). In response,
Defendant argues that the ALJ properly: (1) relied on
substantial evidence when he determined that Plaintiff's
mental limitations were non-severe; (2) factored in
Plaintiff's obesity and physical impairments, (3) found
inconsistencies between Plaintiff's allegations and her
treating physician's opinions and the medical record as a
whole; and (4) determined Plaintiff's credibility based
on the comparison of her alleged limitations and her medical
record as a whole. (Doc. No. 12 at 1).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
review of the Commissioner's decision, the SSA, 42 U.S.C.
§ 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3) limits this Court's
review of a final decision of the Commissioner to: (1)
whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's
decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390,
401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the
correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d
1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Hunter v.
Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam).
The District Court does not review a final decision of the
Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d
343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d
597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483
F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). As the Social Security Act
provides, “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to
any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be
conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v.
Heckler, the Fourth Circuit noted that
“substantial evidence” has been defined as being
“more than a scintilla, and [it] must do more than
create 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 ...