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Crabtree v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

April 13, 2018

GAIL CRABTREE, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          L. Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, Gail Crabtree, brought this action pursuant to the Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Docket Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative record (Docket Entry 7 (cited herein as “Tr. __”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 10, 13; see also Docket Entry 11 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 14 (Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging an onset date of January 1, 2011. (Tr. 199-200.) Upon denial of that application initially (Tr. 77-90, 113-16) and on reconsideration (Tr. 91-105, 117-24), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 111-12). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 34-76.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 17-29.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6, 14-16, 282-87), making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] last met the insured status requirements of the . . . Act on December 31, 2014.
2. [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity from her alleged onset date of January 1, 2011 through her date last insured of December 31, 2014.
3. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the following severe impairments: status post subtotal colectomy and fistula repair, with residual effects of urgency and incontinence; mood disorder; and anxiety disorder.
4. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. . . . [T]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work . . . except limited to occasional climbing of ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; no operation of a motor vehicle at night; and only occasional exposure to extreme heat. [Plaintiff] is mentally limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.
6. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] was unable to perform any past relevant work.
10. Through the date last insured, considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in significant No. in the national economy that [she] could have performed.
11. [Plaintiff] was not under a disability, as defined in the . . . Act, at any time from January 1, 2011, the alleged onset date, through December 31, 2014, the date last insured.

(Tr. 22-29 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)

         II. DISCUSSION

         Federal law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.” Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, “the scope of [the Court's] review of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.” Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the extremely limited review standard.

         A. Standard of Review

         “[C]ourts are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, the 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.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal brackets and quotation marks 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. 1992) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (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) (brackets and internal 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 [C]ourt should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].” 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 [Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before [the Court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         When confronting that issue, the Court must take note that “[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, 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)).[1] “To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration has . . . detailed regulations incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account a claimant's age, education, ...


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