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Darby v. Berryhill

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

January 5, 2018

DENISE W. DARBY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 9), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 10), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Memorandum in Support, (Doc. No. 12).

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Plaintiff Denise W. Darby (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Defendant Social Security Commissioner's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security claim. (Doc. No. 1). On December 19, 2007, Plaintiff filed her first application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”) under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405 et seq. (Doc. Nos. 8 to 8-14: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 525). In 2008, ALJ denied those claims and the Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Id.). Because Plaintiff did not seek review before this Court, the 2008 ALJ decision remains final. (Id.).

         On September 27, 2010, Plaintiff filed the application for DIB and SSI that is at issue before the Court. (Id. at 158). In this second application, Plaintiff alleged an inability to work due to disabling conditions beginning on July 31, 2010. (Id.). The Commissioner denied Plaintiff's application initially on February 4, 2011, and again after reconsideration on May 9, 2011. (Id. at 158, 169). Plaintiff then filed a timely written request for a hearing, which was held on December 10, 2012. (Id. at 33-77). The ALJ issued a decision on January 14, 2013, denying Plaintiff's claims. (Id. at 16-32). Plaintiff filed a request for review of the ALJ's decision on March 13, 2013, which the Appeals Council denied on June 16, 2014. (Id. at 1-5, 12). Plaintiff then appealed the Appeals Council's decision but on February 25, 2015, this Court granted a consent motion to remand Plaintiff's case to the Commissioner for a new hearing. (Id. at 597-601).

         On remand, the ALJ once again denied Plaintiff's claim in a written decision on March 28, 2016. (Id. at 522). Plaintiff then filed written exceptions to the ALJ's decision but, on review, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's claim on September 6, 2016, rendering the ALJ's decision the final determination of Defendant. (Id. at 512, 520). After this second denial by the Appeals Council, Plaintiff filed this action requesting judicial review of Defendant's decision.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was under a “disability” as that term of art is defined for Social Security purposes, at any time between July 31, 2010, and the date of his decision on March 28, 2016.[1] (Tr. at 526). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). The ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not under a disability at any time from time between July 31, 2010 and March 28, 2016. (Tr. at 525-51).

         The Social Security Administration has established a five-step sequential evaluation process for determining if a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). The five steps are:

(1) whether claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity-if yes, not disabled;
(2) whether claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment, or combination of impairments that meet the duration requirement in § 404.1509-if no, not disabled;
(3) whether claimant has an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one of the listings in appendix 1 and meets the duration requirement-if yes, disabled;
(4) whether claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform his or her past relevant work-if yes, not disabled; and
(5) whether considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience he or she can make an adjustment to other work-if yes, not disabled.

See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i-v). In this case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. at 549-50).

         Specifically, the ALJ first concluded that Plaintiff had not engaged in any substantial gainful activity since July 31, 2010, her alleged disability onset date. (Id. at 528). At the second step, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “cervical spondylosis with secondary cervical radiculopathy and cervical dystonia, history of a left rotator cuff tear, status post repair, myofascial pain syndrome, hypertension, obesity, as well as depressive and schizoaffective disorders.” (Id.). At the third step, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an “impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.” (Id. at 528-32). In making this determination, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had mild restriction in activities of daily living; moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace; moderate difficulties in social functioning; and no repeated episodes of decompensation. (Id. at 529).

         Next, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's RFC and found that she retained the capacity to perform:

“light” work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except she is limited to the occasional climbing of ladders, occasional crawling, frequent but not constant reaching overhead handling and fingering with the left upper extremity. Further, [Plaintiff] is to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards. Finally, [Plaintiff] is limited to simple routine repetitive tasks in a ...

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