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Henson v. Berryhill

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

March 6, 2018

CHRISTINE J. HENSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

         This 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.

         I. Procedural History

         On 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.)

         On 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.)

         The ALJ 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. 10-54.)

         The 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)

         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 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.

         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 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.[1]
(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, [2] 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. § 404.1520(c)).[3]
(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. § 404.1565).[4]
(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. § 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) 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)).[5]
(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. § 404.1520(g)).

         (T. 10-54.)

         IV. ...


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