United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Eastern Division
CHARLENE J. BEST, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
E. Gates United States Magistrate Judge.
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.
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.
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).
Standards for Disability
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).
disability regulations under the Act
("Regulations") provide a five-step analysis that the
ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is
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
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.
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).
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.
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),  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.
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 ...