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Bushaw v. Berryhill

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

April 26, 2018

BRIE K. BUSHAW, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          FRANK D. WHITNEY, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Brie K. Bushaw's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed on December 26, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) filed on February 22, 2018.

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; GRANTS the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment; and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title II and Title XVI disability benefits in April 2012, alleging disability. (Tr. 321, 325, 335). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 219, 226, 235), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 245). After the hearing on March 20, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 85, 194). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was granted and remanded to the ALJ for a new hearing. (Tr. 216- 17). The ALJ held a remand hearing and supplemental hearing on May 5, 2016 and November 10, 2016, respectively. (Tr. 37, 55). The ALJ issued an unfavorable decision again, and Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied. (Tr. 1, 8).

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Tr. 11). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date and that she had the following severe impairments: “diabetes, obesity, affective disorders and anxiety disorders.” (Tr. 13). The ALJ determined that none of these impairments nor any combination of the impairments met or medically equaled a per se disabled medical listing under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (Tr. 14). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b):

[E]xcept she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, occasionally climb ramps or stairs, stoop, crouch, or kneel, but never crawl; her work is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks; performed in a work environment free of fast-paced production requirements; involving only simple, work-related decisions; and with few, if any, work place changes; she is capable of learning simple vocational tasks and completing them at an adequate pace with persistence in a vocational setting; and can perform simple tasks for two hour blocks of time with normal rest breaks during an eight hour work day; she is also limited to only occasional interaction with the public and coworkers.

         (Tr. 16). In response to a hypothetical that factored in Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the vocational expert (“VE”) testified that such an individual can perform jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers. (Tr. 23). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 23).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1382(c)(3). Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision should be reversed because the ALJ relied on testimony from the VE that appears to conflict with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) and failed to sufficiently explain his determination that Plaintiff could perform tasks for two hour blocks of time.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. When examining a disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013); Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because “it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 2013).

         “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) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts do not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” courts defer to the ALJ's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.

         “In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a medically determinable impairment that precludes returning to past relevant work and adjustment to other work.” Flesher v. Berryhill, 697 Fed.Appx. 212 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1520(g)). In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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).

         “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, which is ‘the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations [that affect h[er] ability to work].'” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861-62 (quoting 20 C.F.R. ยงยง ...


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