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Estes v. Berryhill

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

March 10, 2018

DENNIS WAYNE ESTES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Dennis L. Howell United States Magistrate Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (# 12, 13). 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 his claim for disability benefits. The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is granted and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is denied.

         I. Procedural Background

         On January 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 13.) Plaintiff also filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on January 23, 2013. (T. 13.) In both applications, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of July 15, 2006. (T. 13.) Plaintiff later amended the alleged onset date to June 30, 2010. (T. 13.)

         The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claims initially on April 8, 2013. (T. 133.) The claims were denied upon reconsideration on September 9, 2013. (T. 13.) On October 29, 2013, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (T. 13.)

         On May 29, 2015, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted a hearing in Charlotte, North Carolina. (T. 13.) Plaintiff appeared and testified at the hearing. (T. 13.) Lavonne Brent, a vocational expert, also appeared at the hearing. (T. 13.)

         On June 16, 2015, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's claim in a written decision. (T. 13-24.) Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, and on October 31, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T. 1-3.)

         The ALJ's June 16, 2015, decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. On December 29, 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 sequence: (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, 416.920; 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 capable 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 ...


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