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Best v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division

November 20, 2017

CHARLENE J. BEST, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          James E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge.

         In this action, plaintiff Charlene J. Best ("plaintiff or, in context, "claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying her application for supplemental security income ("SSI") on the grounds that she is not disabled. The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 14, 16. Both filed memoranda in support of their respective motions. D.E. 15, 17. The motions were referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). See 2 June 2017 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that the Commissioner's motion be allowed, plaintiffs motion be denied, and the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on 9 April 2013, alleging a disability onset date of 1 January 2013. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 16. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for a hearing was timely filed. Tr. 16. On 19 February 2015, a hearing was held before an administrative law judge ("ALJ"), at which plaintiff, represented by a non-attorney representative, and a vocational expert ("VE") testified. Tr. 32-60. The ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiffs claim on 10 April 2015. Tr. 16-27.

         Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council. Tr. 11. On 30 August 2016, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. Tr. 1. At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481. On 27 October 2016, plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review of the ALJ's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3). See In Forma Pauperis ("IFP") Mot. (D.E. 1); Order Allowing IFP Mot. (D.E. 4); Compl. (D.E. 5).

         B. Standards for Disability

         The Social Security Act ("Act") defines disability as 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). "An individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as "an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques." Id. § 423(d)(3).

         The disability regulations under the Act ("Regulations")[1] provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:

To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the [Regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the [R]egulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
The first four steps create a series of hurdles for claimants to meet. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has been working (step one) or that the claimant's medical impairments do not meet the severity and duration requirements of the [R]egulations (step two), the process ends with a finding of "not disabled." At step three, the ALJ either finds that the claimant is disabled because her impairments match a listed impairment [i.e., a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 ("the Listings")] or continues the analysis. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at this step.
If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity ["RFC"], which is "the most" the claimant "can still do despite" physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. [20 C.F.R.] § 416.945(a)(1). To make this assessment, the ALJ must "consider all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, " including those not labeled severe at step two. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).
The ALJ then moves on to step four, where the ALJ can find the claimant not disabled because she is able to perform her past work. Or, if the exertion required for the claimant's past work exceeds her [RFC], the ALJ goes on to step five.
At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can perform other work that "exists in significant numbers in the national economy, " considering the claimant's [RFC], age, education, and work experience. Id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429. The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a [VE] responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations. If the Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not disabled and denies the application for benefits.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015).

         C. ALJ's Findings

         Plaintiff was 49 years old on the date she filed her application (Tr. 26 ¶ 5) and 51 years old on the date of the hearing (Tr. 37). The ALJ found that she had a limited education (Tr. 26 ¶ 5) and past relevant work as a cook (Tr. 25 ¶ 5).

         Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since 9 April 2013, the application date. Tr. 18 ¶ 1. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations: subacromial impingement syndrome; diabetes; carpal tunnel syndrome; gastroesophageal reflux disease ("GERD"); hypertension; and obesity. Tr. 18 ¶ 2. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the Listings. Tr. 19¶3.

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of light work:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds the claimant has the [RFC] to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b), [2] with the following provisos: the claimant is limited to frequent pushing, pulling, operating hand controls, handling, fingering and/or feeling with the upper extremities, but she is limited to occasional overhead reaching with her right (dominant) upper extremity; she is limited to occasional climbing ramps and stairs, but no climbing ladders, ropes or scaffolds; she is limited to occasional balancing, but frequent stooping, kneeling, crouching and/or crawling; she must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards, such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights.

Tr. 21-22 ¶ 4.

         Based on his determination of plaintiff s RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a cook (DOT #213.671-010), as generally performed. Tr. 25-26 ¶ 5. The ALJ accordingly concluded that plaintiff had not been under a ...

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