United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge.
Thelma Ann Pierce, 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 Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).
(Docket Entry 2.) Defendant has filed the certified
administrative record (Docket Entry 10 (cited herein as
“Tr. ”)), and both parties have moved for
judgment (Docket Entries 12, 14; see also Docket Entry 13
(Plaintiff's Brief); Docket Entry 15 (Defendant's
Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should
enter judgment for Defendant.
applied for SSI. (Tr. 121-26.) Upon denial of that
application initially (Tr. 41-56, 72-75) and on
reconsideration (Tr. 57-71, 78-82), Plaintiff requested a
hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) (Tr. 83-85). Plaintiff, appearing pro se,
and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the
hearing. (Tr. 25-40.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that
Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr.
9-20.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's
request for review (Tr. 1-5, 8, 187-90), thereby making the
ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for
purposes of judicial review.
rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the
following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since March 21, 2013, the application date.
2. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: diabetes
mellitus, depression, and cognitive disorder.
. . .
3. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
. . .
4. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to
perform medium work . . . except she is limited to simple,
routine and repetitive tasks.
. . .
5. [Plaintiff] has no past relevant work.
. . .
9. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant No. in the national economy that
[she] can perform.
. . .
10. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined
in the . . . Act, since March 21, 2013, the date the
application was filed.
(Tr. 14-20 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations
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.
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
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).
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)). “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, and work experience in
addition to [the claimant's] medical condition.”
Id. “These regulations establish a
‘sequential evaluation process' to determine
whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.
sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to
five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in
‘substantial gainful activity, ' i.e., currently
working; and (2) must have a ‘severe' impairment
that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings' of
specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the
extent that the claimant does not possess the residual
functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past
work or (5) any other work.” Albright v.
Commissioner of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475
n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at any
of several points in the SEP forecloses an award and ends the
inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines
whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful
activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are
denied. The second step determines if the claimant is
‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are
denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157,
159 (4th Cir. 1990).
other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each
of the first three steps, “the claimant is
disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a
claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three,
i.e., “[i]f a claimant's impairment is not
sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment,
the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional
capacity (‘RFC').” Id. at
Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on
that RFC, the claimant can perform past relevant work; if so,
the claimant does not qualify as disabled. See Id.
at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability
to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth
step, whereupon the ALJ must decide “whether the
claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the
claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational
capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to
adjust to a new job.” ...