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Hunter v. Berryhill

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

December 21, 2017

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 John Dow Hunter's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed on October 2, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) filed on November 29, 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 GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Plaintiff's Motion For Summary Judgment; DENIES Defendant's Motion For Summary Judgment; and REMANDS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits under Title XVI on June 20, 2013, alleging disability (Tr. 26, 122). After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 153, 157), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 167). A hearing was held on December 4, 2015. (Tr. 26, 178). On January 7, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 23). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on February 2, 2017. (Tr. 1).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of June 20, 2013 and had severe impairments of degenerative disc disease, seizures, depression, anxiety, borderline intellectual functioning, and substance addition disorder (Tr. 28). 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. 29). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), with the following limitations:

The claimant is limited to occasional exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. The claimant can never operate a motor vehicle. The claimant is limited to performing simple, routine tasks. The claimant is limited to frequent contact with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public. The claimant is limited to making simple, work-related decisions.

(Tr. 30-31). The vocational expert (“VE”) testified that an individual with Plaintiff's RFC could perform his past relevant work as a doffer, DOT No. 689.686-022. (Tr. 34, 85-87). Additionally, 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 number of jobs that Plaintiff could perform with his limitations (Tr. 35). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 35-36).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c)(3). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision should be reversed because the ALJ's decision (1) did not give a complete function-by-function analysis of Plaintiff's mental RFC and (2) did not explain why limitations were not included in the RFC.


         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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