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Watts v. Berryhill

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

December 4, 2017

CHARLES D. WATTS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          FRANK D. WHITNEY, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Charles D. Watts's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed on April 25, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15) filed on July 26, 2017. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”).

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and GRANTS the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI disability benefits on July 23, 2012, alleging disability (Tr. 272). After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 161, 169), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 174). At the hearing, the ALJ issued a favorable decision, which was vacated and remanded by the Appeals Council. (Tr. 136, 147). After the second hearing on March 14, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying Plaintiff's application on April 19, 2016. (Tr. 12). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on October 19, 2016. (Tr. 2).

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 35). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date and that he had the following severe impairments: “a history of Crohn's disease; a history of migraine headaches; a history of lower left extremity fracture with surgical repair of the left lower, extremity, including the left ankle; a history of bipolar disorder and depression.” (Tr. 18). The ALJ determined that none of these impairments nor any combination of the impairments meet or medically equal a per se disabled medical listing under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (Tr. 20). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(c), 416.967(c) with the following limitations:

[Plaintiff] is limited to only occasionally climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and he is further limited to jobs performing the simple, routine, repetitive tasks of unskilled work, performed at a non-production pace in a stable environment, with only occasional interpersonal interaction.

(Tr. 22). In response to a hypothetical that factored in the above limitations, the vocational expert (“VE”) testified that Plaintiff could perform jobs in the national economy (Tr. 34). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 35).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision should be reversed because the ALJ failed to provide specified work related mental functions in the RFC and improperly rejected medical opinions.[1]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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 a 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). Courts 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, ” courts 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 F. App'x 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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