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Hammond v. Berryhill

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

March 23, 2018

TAMMY E. HAMMOND, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendants.



         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. 15). 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. Tammy E. Hammond (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits on August 26, 2013, alleging disability since December 31, 2011. (Tr. 19.) Plaintiff's application was initially denied on December 6, 2013, (Tr. 157), and denied again at reconsideration on April 21, 2014. (Tr. 172, 180.) Thomas filed a request for hearing and on June 5, 2014. (Tr. 190.) Administrative Law Judge Randall D. Huggins (“ALJ”) conducted the hearing in Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 18, 2016. (Tr. 37.) The ALJ denied Thomas' application in a written decision dated June 7, 2016. (Tr. 16.)

         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, December 31, 2011, and the date Plaintiff's insured status expired, December 31, 2016. (Tr. 21.) At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: arthritis with left knee pain; insulin dependent diabetes mellitus with symptoms of edema and neuropathy; depression; anxiety; and high blood pressure. (Tr. 21.) 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. 22.)

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff, despite her impairments, could perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) and 416.967(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) and 416.967(b) except limited to occasional pushing/pulling with left lower extremity, to the extent she can lift and/or carry; use ramps and stairs occasionally; never use ladders, ropes, scaffolds; occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; limited to frequent handling and fingering bilaterally; must be permitted to change position from sitting and/or standing one time each hour; avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts; limited to simple work-related instructions and directions; limited to simple routine tasks but not at a production rate pace, e.g., assembly line work; limited to occasional contact with supervisors and the public; and capable of responding appropriately to routine changes in an unskilled work setting.

(Tr. 24.) Also, at step four the ALJ found Plaintiff could no longer perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 29.) 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. 30.) The ALJ issued a decision that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 31.)

         On December 16, 2016, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review of the hearing decision. (Tr. 1.) Therefore, the ALJ's decision dated June 7, 2016, 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: error in the RFC analysis, as well as in the ALJ's reliance on the VE testimony. 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 analysis may an ALJ express RFC in terms of the exertional levels of work.

Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179 (citations and quotations omitted). Once the function-by-function analysis is complete, an ALJ may define the claimant's RFC “in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. See generally 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1567, 416.967 (defining ...

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