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Kelly v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Northern Division

March 23, 2018

AMIEE KELLY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          TERRENCE W. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This cause comes before the Court on cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. The matters have been fully briefed and are ripe for ruling. For the reasons discussed below, the decision of the Commissioner is affirmed.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff[1] brought this action under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) for review of the final decision of the Commissioner denying her claim for disability and disability insurance benefits (DIB) pursuant to Title II of the Social Security Act. Plaintiff applied for DIB on May 29, 2012, alleging disability since August 4, 2010. After initial denials, a video hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who issued an unfavorable ruling. The decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner when the Appeals Council denied plaintiffs request for review. Plaintiff then timely sought review of the Commissioner's decision in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs claim was transferred to this Court by order entered January 30, 2017.

         DISCUSSION

         Under the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), and 1383(c)(3), this Court's review of the Commissioner's decision is limited to determining whether the decision, as a whole, is supported by substantial evidence and whether the Commissioner employed the correct legal standard. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as 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 and citation omitted).

         An individual is considered disabled if he 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 [twelve] months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). The Act further provides that an individual "shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other line of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B).

         Regulations issued by the Commissioner establish a five-step sequential evaluation process to be followed in a disability case. 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 Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). If a decision regarding disability can be made at any step of the process the inquiry ceases. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one, if the Social Security Administration determines that the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. If not, then step two asks whether the claimant has a severe impairment or combination of impairments. If the claimant has a severe impairment, it is compared at step three to those in the Listing of Impairments ("Listing") in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. If the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals a Listing, disability is conclusively presumed. If not, at step four, the claimant's residual functional capacity (RFC) is assessed to determine if the claimant can perform his past relevant work. If so, the claim is denied. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, then the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that the claimant, based on his age, education, work experience, and RFC, can perform other substantial gainful work. If the claimant cannot perform other work, then he is found to be disabled. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4).

         At step one, the ALJ determined that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date through her date last insured. Plaintiffs degenerative disc disease of the cervical and lumbar spine were considered severe at step two but were not found alone or in combination to meet or equal a Listing at step three. At step four, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff had the RFC to perform sedentary work with limitations. The ALJ found that plaintiff could no longer perform her past relevant work as a dental assistant, dental hygienist, bridal consultant, or store manager. At step five, the ALJ found that, considering plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy which plaintiff could perform, including receptionist/clerk, office clerk, and inspector. Thus, the ALJ concluded that plaintiff was not disabled as of the date of her decision.

         In this appeal, plaintiff contends that the ALJ improperly discounted plaintiffs subjective statements about her pain, failed to conduct an analysis of Listings 1.04 and 11.14, improperly discounted Dr. McAuley's opinion, and failed to properly analyze step five. The Court considers each argument in turn.

         I. Credibility determination.

         The ALJ makes an RFC assessment based on all of the relevant medical and other evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1545(a)(3).

The ALJ follows a two-step analysis when considering a claimant's subjective statements about impairments and symptoms. First, the ALJ looks for objective medical evidence showing a condition that could reasonably produce the alleged symptoms. Second, the ALJ must evaluate the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of the claimant's symptoms to determine the extent to which they limit the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. The second determination requires the ...


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