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Cochran v. Berryhill

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

November 20, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Timothy Cochran's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 6), filed February 21, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 8), filed April 19, 2017. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits.

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI benefits on January 11, 2013, alleging disability beginning October 30, 2010. (Tr. 25). The claim was denied initially on May 22, 2013, and upon reconsideration on October 11, 2013. Id. Plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing on October 31, 2013, and Administrative Law Judge Marshall D. Riley (“the ALJ”) held a hearing on August 12, 2014. Id. On September 12, 2014, the ALJ issued decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 37).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 11, 2013. (Tr. 27), and had the severe impairments of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), arthralgias, anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, panic disorder without agoraphobia, and personality disorder. Id. However, the ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart B, App. 1. Id. The ALJ then found Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(b) with the following limitations:

lifting 20 pounds occasionally and tend pounds frequently; standing/walking with normal breaks six to eight hours; and sitting for six hours; no pushing/pulling limitations; no postural limitations; no manipulative limitations; no visual limitation. . . . The claimant should be able to understand and remember well enough for unskilled work (short, repetitive tasks), interact appropriately in a non-skilled work environment but not with the general public; and adapt and respond appropriately well enough for unskilled work.

(Tr. 29). The ALJ found Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (Tr. 36). However, based on education, work experience, and RFC, the VE produced a list of jobs available in significant numbers Plaintiff could perform with the recorded limitations. Id.

         Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision on September 29, 2014. (Tr. 21). The request was denied by the Appeals Council on July 29, 2016. (Tr. 1). Thus, the ALJ's decision of September 12, 2014, became the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1). Having exhausted administrative remedies, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties' Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for review. Plaintiff claims the ALJ erred in assessing mental RFC, weighing opinion evidence, and assessing Plaintiff's credibility. (Doc. No. 7).


         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. When examining a disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013); Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because “it is not within the province of the reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 2013).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). We do not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” we defer to the ALJ's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.

         “In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a medically determinable impairment that precludes returning to past relevant work and adjustment to other work.” Flesher v. Berryhill, 697 Fed.Appx. 212 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1520(g)). In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Pursuant to this five-step 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 severity of a listed impairment; (4) could return to his past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy. Id.; see also Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861; Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016).

         “If the claimant fails to demonstrate she has a disability that meets or medically equals a listed impairment at step three, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four, which is ‘the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations [that affect h[er] ability to work].'” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861-62 (quoting 20 C.F.R. ยงยง ...

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