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Reap v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 19, 2018

MICHAEL D. REAP, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          OSTEEN, JR., District Judge

         Plaintiff, Michael D. Reap brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the “Act”), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) under Titles II and XVI of the Act. The court has before it the certified administrative record[1] and cross-motions for judgment, and this matter is now ripe for adjudication. After a careful consideration of the evidence of record, the Decision of the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), and the governing legal standard, this court finds that remand is proper.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed applications for DIB and SSI in January of 2012 alleging a disability onset date of December 31, 2005. (Tr. at 470-82.) The applications were denied initially and again upon reconsideration. (Id. at 394-411, 419-36.) After an evidentiary hearing, the ALJ determined on August 14, 2014, that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Id. at 272-95.)

         Specifically, the ALJ concluded that (1) Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the relevant period; (2) his severe impairments included degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, obesity, hypertension, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, and history of substance abuse and dependence; (3) he did not meet or equal a listed impairment; (4) he could perform light work, but would also need a sit/stand option on an occasional basis; he could only occasionally climb balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, or crawl; he should have no concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights; he is further limited to unskilled work in a job with no more than occasional public contact in a work environment with a non-productive pace; and (5) he was able to perform his past relevant work, and there were, in the alternative, also jobs he could perform. (Tr. at 277-90.) Plaintiff requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision and the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's determination the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of review. (Id. at 1-6.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal law authorizes judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, the scope of review of such a decision is “extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). “The courts are not to try the case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation omitted).

         “Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'” Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). “If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         “In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ].” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted).

         In undertaking this limited review, this court notes that “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability.” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). In this context, “disability” means 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.'” Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).

         “The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims.” Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). “Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to [his] past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy.” Id.

         A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is ‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at the first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets or equals a “listed impairment” at step three, “the claimant is disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., “[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment, ” then “the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (‘RFC').” Id. at 179.[2]

         Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can “perform past relevant work”; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which “requires the [Government] to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite [the claimant's] impairments.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, the ALJ must decide “whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job.” Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the ...


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