United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
CHRISTINE J. HENSON, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION
matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions
for summary judgment (# 6, 9). 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 granted and the Commissioner's motion for
summary judgment be denied.
October 7, 2010, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a
period of disability and disability insurance benefits.
(Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”)
304-06.) Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of March
20, 2010. (T. 304-06.) The Social Security Administration
denied Plaintiff's claim initially on January 26, 2011.
(T. 246-250.) The claim was denied upon reconsideration on
August 30, 2011. (T. 255-257.) On October 26, 2011, Plaintiff
filed a written request for a hearing. (T. 258-59.)
October 30, 2012, a disability hearing was held before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Greenville,
South Carolina. (T. 138-181.) The ALJ issued a decision
finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from March 20, 2010,
through the date of his decision, March 1, 2013. (T.
221-235.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's
decision. (T. 242.) The Appeals Council granted
Plaintiff's request for review and remanded the case for
additional administrative proceedings. (T. 241-245.)
conducted a second hearing on March 25, 2015. (T. 63-137.) On
April 24, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that
Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social
Security Act from her alleged onset date, March 20, 2010,
through the date she was last insured, December 31, 2014. (T.
Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of
the ALJ's second decision. (T. 1-3.) On December 8, 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 1 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
April 24, 2015, decision, the ALJ ultimately found that
Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 223(d)
of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2014, the
date last insured. (T. 54.) In support of this conclusion,
the ALJ made the following specific findings:
(1) The claimant last met the insured status requirements of
the Social Security Act on December 31, 2014.
(2) The claimant did not engage in substantial gainful
activity during the period from her alleged onset date, March
20, 2010, through her date last insured, December 31, 2014
(20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.).
(3) Through the date last insured, the claimant had the
following severe impairments: obesity,  fibromyalgia,
cervical and lumbar spine degenerative disc disease, status
post right ankle fracture in October 2010 and Achilles
tendinopathy, asthma/sleep apnea, irritable bowel
syndrome/GERD, headaches, depression, post-traumatic stress
disorder, anxiety, ADHD, and personality disorder (20 C.F.R.
(4) Through the date last insured, the claimant did not have
an impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled 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).
(5) Through the date last insured, the claimant had the RFC
to perform medium work (lift, carry, push, or pull 50 pounds
occasionally and 25 pounds frequently, stand or walk 6 hours
in a 8-hour workday, and sit 6 hours in a 8-hour workday) as
defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(c), except with the
following limitations: frequently climb ramps/stairs,
balance, stoop, kneel, and crouch; never climb
ladders/ropes/scaffolds; occasionally crawl; frequently reach
overhead and handle with bilateral upper extremities; avoid
concentrated exposure to environmental irritants and hazards;
perform simple, repetitive, and routine tasks; needs a low
stress environment, which is defined in functional terms as
having no contact with the public.
(6) Throughout the date last insured, the claimant was unable
to perform any past relevant work (20 C.F.R. §
(7) The claimant was born on January 25, 1970, and she was 44
years old, which is defined as a younger individual age
18-49, on her date last insured (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. §
(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) Through the date last insured, considering the
claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC,
there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that she could have performed (20
C.F.R.§§ 404.1569, 404.1569(a)).
(11) The claimant was not under a disability, as defined in
the Social Security Act, at any time from March 20, 2010,
through December 31, 2014, the date last insured (20 C.F.R.