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Garren v. Berryhill

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

February 25, 2018

SERITA B. GARREN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          DENNIS L. HOWELL, J UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (# 6, 12). Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability benefits. The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be granted.

         I. Procedural History

         On June 8, 2012, plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 301.) Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of May 10, 2012. (T. 301.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claim initially on September 6, 2012. (T. 301.) The claim was denied upon reconsideration on February 19, 2013. (T. 301.) On April 12, 2013, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (T. 301.)

         On April 21, 2015, a disability hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Asheville, North Carolina. (T. 301.) The ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from May 10, 2012, through the date of his decision, July 7, 2015. (T. 301-315.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. (T. 1.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T. 1-4.) On November 16, 2016, Plaintiff filed the instant action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Compl. (# 1)

         II. Standard for Determining Disability

         An individual is disabled for purposes of receiving disability payments if he or she is unable 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). The Commissioner undertakes a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Under the five-step sequential evaluation, the Commissioner must consider each of the following, in order: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful employment; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is sufficiently severe to meet or exceed the severity of one or more of the listing of impairments contained in Appendix I of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpart P; (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to perform any other work considering his or her age, education, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.

         At the first two steps of the sequential evaluation, the burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing. Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If a claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at either of these first two steps, the ALJ will determine that the claimant is not disabled and the process comes to an end. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden remains on the claimant at step three to demonstrate that the claimant's impairments satisfy a listed impairment and, thereby, establish disability. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179.

         If the claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at step three, however, then the ALJ must still determine the claimant's RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four in order to determine whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. Id. The burden is on the claimant to demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform past work. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the ALJ determines that a claimant is not cable of performing past work, then the ALJ proceeds to step five. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635.

         At step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform other work. Id. The burden rests with the Commissioner at step five to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into account the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. Typically, the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five through the use of the testimony of a vocational expert (“VE”), who offers testimony in response to a hypothetical question from the ALJ that incorporates the claimant's limitations. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and deny the application for disability benefits. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In his July 7, 2015, decision, the ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 233(d) of the Social Security Act. (T. 315.) In support of this conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific findings:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2016.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since May 10, 2012, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: fibromyalgia, obesity, migraine headaches, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar and cervical spine, arthritis of the hips and elbows, De Quervain's tenosynovitis of the left thumb, anxiety, a depressive disorder, a personality disorder, and a somatoform disorder (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).
(4) The claimant does 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. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R.§§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).[1]
(5) The claimant has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b). In particular, the claimant can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and ten pounds frequently; stand for six hours and walk for six hours, each, in an eight-hour workday. The claimant is able to reach overhead and handle frequently. The claimant is able to climb occasionally and balance, stoop, knee, crouch, and crawl frequently. The claimant is unable to climb ladders, scaffolds, or ropes. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to humidity, vibration, temperature extremes, and hazards. The claimant is able to perform simple, one-to-two step tasks. The claimant requires a low stress work environment, which in functional terms, to accommodate the stress, would have no public contact.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R.§ 404.1565).[2]
(7) The claimant was born on December 26, 1970, and she was 41 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date. (20 C.F.R. § 404.1563).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education, and she is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. § 404.1564).
(9) Transferability of job skills is not material to the determination of disability because using the Medical-Vocational Rules as a framework supports a finding that the claimant is “not disabled, ” whether or not the claimant has transferable job skills (See SSR 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that she can perform (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a)).[3]
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, from May 10, 2012, through July 7, 2015 (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g)).

         (T. 301-315.)

         IV. Standard of Review

         Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g) provides that an individual may file an action in federal court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The scope of judicial review is limited in that the district court “must uphold the factual findings of the Secretary if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); accord Monroe, 826 F.3d at 186. “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (internal quotation marks omitted). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of evidence. Id.

         When a federal district court reviews the Commissioner's final decision, it does not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary.” Id. Accordingly, the issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff is disabled but, rather, whether the Commissioner's decision that he or she is not disabled is supported by substantial ...


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