United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
SERITA B. GARREN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
L. HOWELL, J UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
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.)
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)
Standard for Determining Disability
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.
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
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.
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
The ALJ's Decision
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. §
(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,
(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).
(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.
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education, and
she is able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. §
(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)).
(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)).
Standard of Review
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.
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