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Brooks v. Berryhill

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

January 23, 2018

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


          KIMBERZY A. SWANK, United States Magistrate Judge

         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. Linda Simmons Brooks (Plaintiff) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (DIB) and 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 Plaintiffs Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #14] be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #22] be granted, and the Commissioner's decision be upheld.


         Plaintiff applied for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on April 3, 2013, with an alleged onset date of June 1, 2011. (R. 19, 229, 236.) The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 19, 94-95, 118-19, 152-53.) A hearing was held on April 20, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Katherine D. Wisz, who issued an unfavorable ruling on May 20, 2015. (R. 19, 30.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review on October 21, 2016. (R. 1.) 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) (first quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); then quoting 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. l; (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. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 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 1, 2011, the alleged onset date. (R. 21.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: "arthritis in both knees, reconstructive surgery of the knee, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, carpal tunnel syndrome, and obesity." (Id.) The ALJ also found Plaintiffs premature ventricular contractions to be a non-severe impairment. (R. 22.)

         At step three, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiffs 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. 22-23.) The ALJ analyzed Listings 1.02, 1.04, 2.02-2.04, 4.02, 4.04, 6.02, 11.04, and 11.14. (Id.)

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

the residual functional capacity to perform less than the full range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b). [Plaintiff] can lift, carry, push, and pull 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently! stand and walk six hours in an eight-hour workday! and sit six hours in an eight-hour workday. She would need to adjust positions every hour but such shifting would not require departure from her workstation or work tasks. She can occasionally push and pull with the lower extremities. She can occasionally climb and crouch. She can perform frequent but not constant fingering. She can have occasional exposure to hazards.

(R. 23.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiffs statements about the severity of her symptoms "not entirely credible." (R. 24.) At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as a medical assistant as that job is "generally performed." (R. 29.) Because the ALJ concluded Plaintiff could perform past relevant work, she concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled as defined in the Social Security Act. (Id.)

         IV. Plaintiffs Arguments

         Plaintiff raises eight arguments on review. (Pl's Brief Supp. Mot. J. Pldgs. [DE #15] at 22-30.) She alleges the ALJ erred by

(1) failing to find that Plaintiff met the criteria for Listing 1.04;
(2) failing to find that Plaintiff was disabled pursuant to Medical-Vocational Guidelines (Grids) Rule 202.06;
(3) assessing an RFC at the exertional level of light with specific modifications;
(4) not assigning substantial weight to a state Medicaid determination;
(5) finding Plaintiff to be less than entirely credible regarding the ...

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