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Gower v. Berryhill

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

March 7, 2018

KERRY A. GOWER, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TERRENCE W. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. [D.E. 17, 19]. A hearing; on this matter was held in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 21, 2018. [D.E. 22]. For the reasons discussed below, plaintiffs motion [D.E. 17] is DENIED, defendant's motion [D.E. 19] is GRANTED, and the decision of the Commissioner is AFFIRMED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff previously applied for! disability insurance benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the i Social Security Act ("Act") and received an unfavorable decision from an Administrative Law i Judge ("ALJ") on March 12, 2014. [tr. 58-79]. Plaintiff did not appeal. On August 6, 2015, plaintiff again applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset of October 13, 2011. [Tr. 180-81]. This claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [Tr. 80-95, 96-114, 117-20, 122-27]. On June 28, 2016, an ALJ conducted a hearing to consider plaintiffs claims de novo. [Tr. 33-57]. On August 29, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision finding that plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act. [Tr. 10-32]. The Appeals Council denied plaintiffs review request on January 13, 2017, rendering the ALJ's decision the Commissioner's final decision. [Tr. 1-3].

         On January 25, 2017, plaintiff filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). [D.E. 1].

         LEGAL STANDARD

         A district court's review of the Commissioner's final decision is limited to determining whether the correct legal standard was applied and whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Substantial evidence '"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) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). When determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's final decision, courts should not "undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Id. (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)).

         Under the Act, an individual is disabled if he 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 [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). Further:

an individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other line of substantial gainful work....

42U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         The ALJ engages in a sequential five-step evaluation process to make an initial disability determination. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); see Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). If a decision regarding the claimant's disability can be made at any step of the process, the ALJ's inquiry ceases. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4).

         When evaluating adults, the ALJ denies the claim at step one if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). At step two, the ALJ denies the claim if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him from performing basic work activities. Id. At step three, the ALJ compares the claimant's impairment to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed, or equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed without considering the claimant's age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(d). However, if the impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ then makes a residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(e).

         An RFC finding considers both severe and non-severe impairments, and any combination thereof, and takes into account both objective medical evidence as well as subjective complaints of pain and limitations. Id. The ALJ considers the claimant's ability to meet the physical, mental, sensory, and other requirements of accomplishing work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(4). An RFC finding is meant to reflect the most that a claimant can do, despite his limitations. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(1). An RFC finding should also reflect the claimant's ability to perform sustained work-related activities in a work setting on regular and continuing basis, meaning eight-hours per day, and five days per week. See SSR 96-8p; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 562 (4th Cir. 2006).

         At step four, the ALJ considers a claimant's RFC to determine whether he can perform past relevant work ("PRW") despite his impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4). If not, the ALJ proceeds to step five of the analysis: establishing whether the claimant-based on his RFC, age, education, and work experience-can make an adjustment to ...


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