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Curry v. Berryhill

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

March 12, 2018

TAYLOR NICOLE CURRY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          MATFIN REIDINGER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 11] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 13].

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff, Taylor Nicole Curry, a minor under the age of 18, filed an application for supplemental security income through her mother on March 22, 2012, alleging an onset date of March 1, 2011. [Transcript (“T.”) 81, 291]. The Plaintiff's claim was denied initially and on reconsideration. [T. 190, 205]. Upon the Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on August 8, 2013, before Administrative Law Judge Charles R. Howard (“ALJ Howard”). [T. 214, 88-111]. On October 10, 2013, ALJ Howard issued a written decision (“the 2013 ALJ decision”), finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act since March 22, 2012. [T. 161-178]. The Appeals Council issued a remand order on January 21, 2015, vacating the 2013 ALJ decision and remanding the case for further hearing. [T. 183-186]. A hearing was held on April 23, 2015, before ALJ Howard. [T. 112-132]. At the time of the hearing, Plaintiff was over the age of 18. [T. 60]. Plaintiff testified at this hearing, as did a vocational expert (“VE”). [T. 112]. On January 7, 2015, ALJ Howard issued a decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. [T. 60-81]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. 1-4]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). “When examining [a Social Security Administration] disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). “Substantial evidence is 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” the Court defers to the ALJ's decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[t]he record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ found credible and why, and specific application of the pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.” Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir. 2013).

         III. THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS

         A “disability” entitling a claimant to benefits under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is “[the] inability 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). The Social Security Administration Regulations set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing adult applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). “If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps.” Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first four steps. Id.

         In determining whether or not a child claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a three-step sequential process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.924. At step one, the ALJ determines whether the child claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(b). If so, the child claimant's application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the child claimant. Id. If not, the case progresses to step two, where the child claimant must show a severe impairment. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(c). If the child claimant does not show that any medically determinable impairment is “severe, ” within the meaning of the regulations, then the child claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the child claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d). If a child claimant's impairments do not meet the severity of any listed impairment, the ALJ must then determine whether or not the child claimant's impairments result in limitations that functionally equal the Listings, by assessing the degree of functional limitation in six domains of functioning. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a. The child claimant's impairment(s) must result in “marked” limitations in two domains of functioning or a “severe” limitation in one domain. 20 C.F.R. § 416.926a(a). If not, the child claimant is not disabled and the application for benefits must be denied. 20 C.F.R. § 416.924(d).

         In determining whether or not an adult claimant is disabled, the ALJ follows a five-step sequential process. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920. Steps one and two are the same as under the child standard. Compare 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(i), (ii) with id. §§ 416.924(b), (c). At step three, however, the ALJ must determine only whether one or more of the adult claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the Listings. 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4)(iii). If so, the adult claimant is automatically deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step four, the ALJ must assess the adult claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an administrative assessment of “the most” an adult claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing basis” notwithstanding the adult claimant's medically determinable impairments and the extent to which those impairments affect the adult claimant's ability to perform work-related functions. SSR 96-8p; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1546(c); 404.943(c); 416.945.

         At step four, the adult claimant must show that his or her limitations prevent the adult claimant from performing his or her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634. If the adult claimant can still perform his or her past work, then the adult claimant is not disabled. Id. Otherwise, the case progresses to the fifth step where the burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the Commissioner must establish that, given the adult claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the adult claimant can perform alternative work which exists in substantial numbers in the national economy. Id.; Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006). “The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations.” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering her burden at step five, the adult claimant is not disabled and the application for benefits must be denied. Id. Otherwise, the adult claimant is entitled to benefits. In this case, the ALJ rendered a determination adverse to the Plaintiff at the third step under the child standard and at the fifth step under the adult standard.

         IV. THE ...


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