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Wise v. Berryhill

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

December 12, 2017

TRACIE WISE, Plaintiff,
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 Tracie Wise's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed on September 18, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) filed on November 17, 2017. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and 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. 13).

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits under Title II and XVI on October 1, 2013, alleging disability (Tr. 20, 71). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 121, 129), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 138). After a hearing on December 15, 2015, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 17, 32, 39). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on January 27, 2017. (Tr. 1).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of October 1, 2013 and had severe impairments of anxiety disorder with PTSD features and panic disorder with agoraphobia. (Tr. 22). 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. 23). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels, see 20 C.F.R. § 416.967, with the following nonexternal limitations:

[Plaintiff is] limited to simple, routine, one and two-steps tasks. The claimant should have no public interaction, limited interaction with co-workers, and occasional supervision.

(Tr. 24). The vocational expert (“VE”) testified that subject to the limitations in the RFC, Plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 30). However, in response to a hypothetical that factored in Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the VE testified that Plaintiff could perform jobs in the national economy and produced a list of a significant number of jobs that Plaintiff could perform with her limitations (Tr. 31). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 32).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision should be reversed because the ALJ's decision (1) did not include a limitation in the RFC for concentration, persistence, and pace or explain the omission and (2) improperly evaluated some medical opinion evidence.[1]


         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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