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Sutton v. Berryhill

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

December 19, 2017

NANCY A. BERRYHILL,[1] Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Connell Sutton (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of his application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #15] be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #17] be granted, and the Commissioner's decision be upheld.


         Plaintiff applied for SSI on June 18, 2013, with an alleged onset date of June 1, 2012. (R. 19, 164-69.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 80, 97, 114-16.) A hearing was held on April 28, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Larry A. Miller, who issued an unfavorable ruling on July 6, 2015. (R. 19, 29.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on October 21, 2016. (R. 6.) Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971), and Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (citations omitted) (alteration in original). “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4); Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th. Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. (Id.)

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Social Security Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since June 18, 2013, the application date. (R. 21.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “diabetes mellitus, neuropathy, hypertension, obesity, osteoarthritis, major depressive disorder and schizoaffective disorder.” (Id.)

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff's impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 21.) The ALJ analyzed Listings 1.02, 1.04, 4.00, 12.03, and 12.04. (R. 21-22.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform light work with lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. [Plaintiff] is able to sit six hours in an eight-hour day and stand and walk six hours in an eight-hour day as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b). [Plaintiff] could occasionally climb, stoop, crouch and crawl. [Plaintiff] must avoid hazards, such as unprotected heights and moving machinery. [Plaintiff] can perform simple, routine and repetitive tasks[, ] meaning that he can apply commonsense understanding to carry out instructions furnished in written, oral, or diagrammatic form and deal with problems involving several concrete variables in or from standardized situations. He is able to interact occasionally with co-workers and supervisors, but not the public. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform production rate work. He is unable to work at jobs requiring complex decision making, constant change or dealing with crises.

(R. 23.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements about the severity of his symptoms “not entirely credible.” (R. 27.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not able to perform his past relevant work as a machine operator or laborer. (Id.) At step five, the ALJ concluded, based on Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, that jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could ...

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