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Allen v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

May 1, 2018

ANITA G. ALLEN, 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, Anita G. Allen, 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 9, 12; see also Docket Entry 10 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 13 (Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should remand this matter for further administrative proceedings.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging an onset date of April 1, 2010. (Tr. 169-78.)[1] Upon denial of that application initially (Tr. 62-74, 93-101) and on reconsideration (Tr. 75-90, 103-10), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 111-12). Plaintiff, her non-attorney representative, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 29-61.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 10-22.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6, 7-8, 280-82), 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 September 30, 2013.
2. [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity during the period from her alleged onset date of May 1, 2011 through her date last insured of September 30, 2013.
3. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the following severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease status post-ACDF; left shoulder strain status post-surgery; lumbar degenerative disc disease; right knee strain status post-tibial plateau fracture, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); and obesity.
. . .
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 sedentary work . . . except [she] can never climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, can frequently climb ramps and stairs, can occasionally balance, can frequently kneel, stoop, and crouch, and can occasionally crawl. [Plaintiff] can never push or pull with the left upper extremity and can never reach overhead with the left upper extremity, which is the non-dominant hand. [Plaintiff] would need to avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, extreme heat and hazards.
. . .
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 [Plaintiff] could have performed.
. . .
11. [Plaintiff] was not under a disability, as defined in the . . . Act, at any time from May 1, 2011, through September 30, 2013, the date last insured.

(Tr. 15-22 (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). Even given those limitations, the Court should remand this case for further administrative proceedings.

         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 ...


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