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Henson v. Berryhill

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

November 9, 2017

RENEE M. HENSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, [1] Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS 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.


         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff 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).

         Plaintiff 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).

         B. Factual Background

         The 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.[2] 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 1).

         After 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, not disabled;
(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 yes, disabled;
(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).

         Navigating 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).

         Subsequently, 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.” (Id.).

         At the 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).

         Plaintiff 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).


         Regarding 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 ...

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