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Thomas v. Berryhill

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

March 22, 2018

DANA C. THOMAS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendants.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 6) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 8). 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).[1] For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Background

         The procedural history of this case is undisputed. Dana C. Thomas (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits on February 22, 2013, alleging disability since January 4, 2012. (Tr. 169.) Plaintiff's application was denied initially on May 24, 2013, (Tr. 100), and at reconsideration on August 13, 2013. (Tr. 108.) Plaintiff filed a request for hearing and on September 30, 2013. (Tr. 116.) Administrative Law Judge Todd D. Jacobson (“ALJ”) conducted the hearing in Charlotte, North Carolina, on June 3, 2015. (Tr. 45.) The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision dated July 22, 2015. (Tr. 27.)

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for the evaluation of claims for disability under the Act. (Tr. 30-39); 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 since the alleged onset date, January 4, 2012, and the date Plaintiff's insured status expired, December 31, 2015. (Tr. 32.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, congestive heart failure, asthma, myofascial pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and headache. (Tr. 32.) The ALJ also determined Plaintiff's alleged mental limitations were “no more than mild limitations in activities of daily living, social functioning, and concentration, pace or persistence.” (Tr. 32.) 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. 33.)

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff, despite her impairments, could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and explained her residual functional capacity (“RFC”) as follows:

I find the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she is limited to jobs that permit the option to alternate between sitting and standing in one hour intervals; she is limited to occasional climbing of ladders, ropes and scaffolds; frequent, but not constant, climbing of stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling, and crawling; no concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights; no concentrated exposure to humidity, heat, vibrations, dust, fumes, and gasses; and she is limited to unskilled work.

(Tr. 34.) Also, at step four the ALJ found Plaintiff could no longer perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 37.) 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. 37.) Those jobs included the representative occupations such as storage facility rental clerk, mail clerk, and assembler I. (Tr. 38.) The ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 38.)

         Plaintiff requested a review of this hearing decision on September 10, 2015. (Tr. 24.) This request was denied by the Appeals Council on December 16, 2016. (Tr. 1.) Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated July 22, 2015, became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff then brought the instant suit before this Court to challenge the Commissioner's decision, and this case is now ripe for judicial review pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Standard of Review

         Here, Plaintiff presents two arguments purporting to show error in Defendant's decision, both of which related to the ALJ's RFC analysis and finding. When reviewing a Social Security disability determination, a reviewing court must “uphold the determination when an [Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)] has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). It “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the Court does “not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id. (brackets, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In considering an application for disability benefits, an ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate the disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). Pursuant to this five-step 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 severity 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.; see also Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861; Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016). “Satisfying step 3 warrants an automatic finding of disability, and relieves the decision maker from proceeding to steps 4 and 5.” Patterson v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 846 F.3d 656, 659 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 404.1520(d); see also Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 532 (1990)).

         “If the claimant fails to demonstrate she has a disability that meets or medically equals a listed impairment at step three, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four.” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861. Here, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine what is “the most” the claimant “can still do despite” physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. Id. § 416.945(a)(1); § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

In making this assessment, the ALJ must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions' listed in the regulations. Only after such a function-by-function ...

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