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Knowles v. Berryhill

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

March 17, 2018

MARY K. KNOWLES, 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 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.

         I. Procedural Background

         On July 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. (T. 14)

         On June 16, 2016, a video hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Greenville, South Carolina.[1] (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).

         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 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.

         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 ends. 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, 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.

         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. Id.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In the 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 et seq.).
(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 416.964).
(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 416.920 (g)).

(T. 16-26)

         IV. ...


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