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Oliphant v. Berryhill

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

March 16, 2018

COSMO OLIPHANT, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          Martin Reidinger United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 12] and the Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 13].

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The Plaintiff, Cosmo Oliphant (“Plaintiff”), filed an application for disability insurance benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”) and supplemental security income under Title XVI of the Act, alleging an onset date of May 1, 2008. [Transcript (“T.”) at 323]. The Plaintiff's application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. [T. at 183, 194]. Upon Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on July 13, 2012, before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). [T. at 214, 160]. On August 3, 2012, the ALJ issued a decision (“the 2012 ALJ decision”) denying the Plaintiff benefits, finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act since the date of his application, July 23, 2010. [T. at 161-173]. The Appeals Council issued a remand order on September 6, 2013, vacating the 2012 ALJ decision and remanding the case for further hearing. [T. at 179-181]. After further hearing, the ALJ issued a decision denying the Plaintiff benefits. [T. at 17-31]. The Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for review, thereby making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. [T. at 1-6]. 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, see 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). The Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4thCir. 1986).

         The Social Security Act provides that “[t]he findings of the Commissioner of any Social Security as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive. . . .” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The Fourth Circuit has defined “substantial evidence” as “more than a scintilla and [doing] more than creat[ing] a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Smith v. Heckler, 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401).

         The Court may not re-weigh the evidence or substitute its own judgment for that of the Commissioner, even if it disagrees with the Commissioner's decision, so long as there is substantial evidence in the record to support the final decision below. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).

         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 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.

         At step one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant's application is denied regardless of the medical condition, age, education, or work experience of the claimant. Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920). If not, the case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, which significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform work activities, then no severe impairment is established and the claimant is not disabled. Id.

         At step three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the listed impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404, Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the 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 claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an administrative assessment of “the most” a claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing basis” notwithstanding the claimant's medically determinable impairments and the extent to which those impairments affect the 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 claimant must show that his or her limitations prevent the claimant from performing his or her past work. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634. If the claimant can still perform his or her past work, then the 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 claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the 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 claimant is not disabled and the application for benefits must be denied. Id. Otherwise, the claimant is entitled to benefits. In this case, the ALJ rendered a determination adverse to the Plaintiff at the fifth step.

         IV. THE ...


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