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Ingram v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

December 19, 2017

ELLIS INGRAM, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, Ellis Ingram, brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Docket Entry 2.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative record (Docket Entry 8 (cited herein as “Tr.__”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 11, 13; see also Docket Entry 12 (Plaintiff's Brief), Docket Entry 14 (Defendant's Memorandum)).

         For the reasons that follow, the Court should remand this matter for further administrative proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset date of January 1, 2007. (Tr. 239-60.)[1] Upon denial of those applications initially (Tr. 121-34, 159-67) and on reconsideration (Tr. 135-53, 174-83), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 184-89).[2] Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 97-120.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 38-52; Docket Entry 14-1 at 13.)[3] The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6, 34-35, 344-36, 348-50), making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the [] Act through March 31, 2011.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 2009, the alleged onset date.
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), obesity, residuals of a right femur fracture, osteoarthritis of the knees, lumbar degenerative disc disease, and depression not otherwise specified.
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of unskilled medium work . . . .
[Plaintiff] can stand and walk for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, he can sit for 6 hours in an 8-hour workday, and he can lift and carry, and push and pull 50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. He can frequently climb ramps and stairs and ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. [Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to respiratory irritants including fumes, odors, gases, du[st], and areas with poor ventilation. He can frequently balance, kneel, crouch, and crawl. He has no limitations in his abilities to stoop. [Plaintiff] has no manipulative, visual, or communicative limitations.
Mentally, [Plaintiff] is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks, with frequent, but not continuous, interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and the public.
6. [Plaintiff] is capable of performing his past relevant work as a janitor, dishwasher, and creeler. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.
In the alternative, considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that [Plaintiff] can perform.
7. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the [] Act, from June 1, 2009, through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 43-52; Docket Entry 14-1 at 13 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)


         Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of [the Court's] review of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). Even given those limitations, the Court should remand this case for further administrative proceedings.

         A. Standard of Review

         “[C]ourts are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, the Court “must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before [the Court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the ...

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