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Hardy v. Berryhill

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

March 19, 2018

ROSIE M. HARDY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Defendant.

          ORDER

          FRANK D. WHITNEY CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The procedural history of this case is undisputed. Plaintiff filed an application for a period of disability benefits on August 27, 2012. (Tr. 161, 205). Plaintiff initially alleged disability commencing on April 23, 2009, due to hypertension, a back injury and herniated disk, left eye blindness, arthritis of the back, and a brace on the left ankle. (Tr. 208). Plaintiff's application was denied initially on November 12, 2012, and then again denied upon reconsideration on March 13, 2013. (Tr. 100, 105). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) held a hearing on January 12, 2015, where Plaintiff appeared and testified. (Tr. 33-64). At that point, Plaintiff amended her onset date to February 19, 2013. (Tr. 178). The ALJ issued a decision on April 16, 2015, finding Plaintiff was not disabled at any point between her amended alleged onset date and the date Plaintiff's disability insured status expired on December 31, 2014. (Tr. 16-27, 173). Plaintiff requested Appeals Council review. While the case was pending before the Appeals Council, Plaintiff sought to introduce new evidence, including a January 2014 opinion from Plaintiff's treating physician Dr. Raad, which had not been submitted to the ALJ. On August 29, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (Tr. 1-7). Plaintiff then brought the instant suit before this Court, and this case is now ripe for judicial review pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         In reaching her decision, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for the evaluation of claims for disability under the Act. (Tr. 16-27); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). On step one of the process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity between the amended alleged onset date, February 19, 2013, and the date Plaintiff's insured status expired, December 31, 2014. (Tr. 17). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, osteoarthritis, status post left ankle fracture, hypertension, visual impairment in the left eye, obesity, and degenerative joint disease. (Tr. 18). The ALJ also determined Plaintiff's alleged mental limitations were not severe impairments. (Tr. 19). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any of the Listings. (Tr. 19).

         At step four, the ALJ determined Plaintiff, despite her impairments, could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), and was limited to the following:

[o]ccasional pushing and pulling and use of foot pedals in the left lower extremities; no climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; occasional climbing of ramps and stairs; occasional postural movements including balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling; jobs that require only monocular vision; occasional exposure to workplace hazards, such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery; and that allow claimant to alternate between sitting and standing two times per hour.

(Tr. 19-20). Also, at step four the ALJ found Plaintiff could no longer perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 25). At step five, the ALJ determined that in light of Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the Vocational Expert's (“VE”) testimony, Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 27). Those jobs included the representative light level jobs of test technician, general clerk, and group sales representative. (Tr. 27). Pursuant to the reasons stated above, the ALJ found Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 27).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), restricts and narrows this Court's review of a final administrative decision of the Commissioner to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards. Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). It is not the role of the District Court to reweigh conflicting evidence or make any credibility determinations regarding that evidence because “it is not within the province of the reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). The District Court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986).

         Substantial evidence is defined as “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401, 91 S.Ct. 1420, 1427, 28 L.Ed.2d 842 (1971). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d. 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). Even in instances where a reviewing court would have come to a different conclusion than the Commissioner, the reviewing court must uphold the decision of the Commissioner so long as the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1972); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). Pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, the findings of the Commissioner, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.

         The Social Security Act sets forth a five-step sequential process for determining whether a person is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(1). Step one requires the ALJ to make a determination as to whether the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity; if claimant is, he will be found not disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). Step two is to determine whether the claimant has a severe medically determinable physical or mental impairment or a combination of impairments that is severe and meets the duration requirement. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Step three assesses whether the claimant's impairment or combination of impairments meets or medically equals one of the listings in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1, if the claimant does meet one of the listings, then the claimant will be found disabled. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii). Step four determines whether the claimant has the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the requirements of his past relevant work. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). Finally, step five considers whether the claimant is able to make an adjustment to other work, considering claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v). Plaintiff bears the burden of proof through the first four steps. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         III. ANALYSIS

         On appeal to this Court, Plaintiff makes two assignments of error. First, Plaintiff argues the Appeals Council erred in failing to vacate the ALJ's decision where new evidence was submitted to the Appeals Council. (Doc. No. 11, p 5). Second, Plaintiff argues the ALJ failed to give adequate explanation as to why Plaintiff's mild mental limitations in daily activities, ability to maintain social function, and concentration, persistence, or pace (“CPP”) were not factored into Plaintiff's RFC. Id. For the reasons stated below, this Court finds ...


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