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Byers v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

January 5, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, Thomas Edward Byers, 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 10 (cited herein as “Tr. ___”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 12, 15; see also Docket Entry 13 (Plaintiff's Memorandum), Docket Entry 16 (Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset date of January 15, 2009. (Tr. 145-57.)[1] Upon denial of those applications initially (Tr. 42-59, 80-89) and on reconsideration (Tr. 60-79, 93-101), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 102-03). Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 26-41.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 11-22.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-10, 199-202), 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] met the disability insured status requirements of the Act on January 15, 2009, the original alleged date of disability onset, but continued to meet them only through December 31, 2013.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the original alleged date of disability onset.
3. The medical evidence establishes that [Plaintiff] has “severe” lumbar dysfunction and bilateral foot dysfunction, but that he does not have an impairment or combination of impairments listed in, or medically equal to one listed in, Appendix 1, Subpart P, Regulations No. 4. Additionally, . . . [Plaintiff] has not met his burden of establishing that he has any other “severe” impairment.
4. . . . [T]he testimony regarding the severity of [Plaintiff's] impairments and resulting functional limitations was not persuasive.
5. [Plaintiff] retains the residual functional capacity to perform “medium” work subject to the additional limitations discussed in the body of this decision.
6. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform his past relevant work.
7. . . . [Plaintiff] has a “limited” education, but is functionally illiterate.
. . .
9. Although [Plaintiff] is unable to perform the full range of “medium” work, he is capable of making the adjustment to work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. . . . A finding of not “disabled” is therefore reached within the framework of [Medical-Vocational Rules 203.19 and 203.12].
10. . . . [Plaintiff] does not meet the provisions of . . . the “worn[-]out worker” rule.
11. [Plaintiff] was not under a disability, as defined in the [] Act, at any time through the date of this decision . . . .

(Tr. 21-22.)[2]


         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). Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the extremely limited review standard.

         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 claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         When confronting that issue, the Court must take note that “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context, “disability” means the “‘inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months, '” id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[3] “To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration has . . . detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, and work experience in ...

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