United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
MARY K. KNOWLES, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
L. Howell United States Magistrate Judge
matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for
Judgment on the Pleadings (# 10) and Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment (# 14). 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 ripe for ruling.
31, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed applications for a
period of disability, disability insurance benefits, and
supplemental security income. (Transcript of Administrative
Record (“T.”) 14) Plaintiff alleged a disability
onset date of May 28, 2013. (T. 14) On January 14, 2014, the
Social Security Administration initially denied
Plaintiff's claims. (T. 14) On August 27, 2014, the
claims were denied upon reconsideration. (T. 14) On September
30, 2014, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing.
16, 2016, a video hearing was held before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Greenville, South
Carolina. (T. 14) Plaintiff appeared via video in
Asheville, North Carolina. (T. 14) On September 13, 2016, the
ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled
from May 28, 2013, through the date of his decision. (T.
14-27) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision.
(T. 10) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request
for review. (T. 1-3) On February 2, 2017, Plaintiff filed
this action seeking review of the Commissioner's final
decision. See Compl. (#1).
Standard for Determining Disability
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 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 I 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. 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520, 416.920; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.;
Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177.
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 ends. Mascio v. Colvin, 780
F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015).
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, the ALJ must still, however, determine
the claimant's residual functional capacity
(“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.
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.
The ALJ's Decision
September 13, 2016, decision, the ALJ concluded that
Plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i) and 233(d)
of the Social Security Act. (T. 27) In support of this
conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific findings:
(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the
Social Security Act through December 31, 2018.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since May 28, 2013, the alleged onset date (20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1571 et seq., and 416.971
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: spine
disorders, anxiety disorder, and affective disorders (20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination
of impairments that meets or medically equals 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,
404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).
(5) The claimant has the residual functional capacity to
perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1567(c); 416.967(c) with some limits. She can lift up to
50 pounds occasionally and 25 pounds frequently. She can
stand or walk for 6 hours of an 8-hour workday and sit for 6
hours of an 8hour work day. She can occasionally climb ramps
and stairs. She can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds.
She can occasionally crouch, kneel and crawl. She can
frequently stoop. She can frequently perform bilateral
overhead reaching. She can tolerate frequent exposure to
excessive vibration and use of moving machinery. She can
tolerate occasional exposure to unprotected heights. She is
limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks performed in a
work environment free of fast-paced production requirements,
involving only simple, work-related decisions and few, if
any, workplace changes. She is capable of learning simple
vocational tasks and completing them at an adequate pace with
persistence in a vocational setting. She can perform simple
tasks for two-hour blocks of time with normal rest breaks
during an 8-hour workday with only occasional interaction
with the public and co-workers.
(6) The claimant is unable to perform past relevant work as a
front end manager/cashier and office manager (20 C.F.R.
§§ 404.1565, 416.965).
(7) The claimant was born on May 8, 1953 and was 60 years
old, which is defined as an individual closely approaching
retirement age, on the on the alleged disability onset date
(20 C.F.R. 404.1563 and 416.963).
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education and is
able to communicate in English (20 C.F.R. 404.1564 and
(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
S.S.R. 82-41 and 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 2).
(10) Considering the claimant's age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. 404.1569,
404.1569(a), 416.969, and 416.969(a)).
(11) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined
in the Social Security Act, from May 28, 2013, through the
date of the ALJ's decision (20 C.F.R. 404.1520(g) and