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Nobrega v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

May 3, 2018

CAROLYN ARMA NOBREGA, Plaintiff/Claimant,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert B. Jonesf Jr.United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings [DE-17, -19] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Claimant Carolyn Arma Nobrega ("Claimant") filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB"), and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") payments. The time for filing responsive briefs has expired and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, it is ordered that Claimant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings be allowed, and the final decision of the Commissioner be affirmed.


         Claimant protectively filed applications for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI on January 25, 2013, alleging disability beginning October 20, 2012. (R. 257-59, 262-67). The claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (R. 106-67). A hearing before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") was held on March 29, 2016, at which Claimant, represented by counsel, and a vocational expert ("VE") appeared and testified. (R. 46-90). On April 28, 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying Claimant's request for benefits. (R. 13-43). On April 19, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Claimant's request for review. (R. 1-5). Claimant then filed a complaint in this court seeking review of the now-final administrative decision.


         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision regarding disability benefits under the Social Security Act ("Act"), 42 U.S.C. § 301 et seq., is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffinan v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). "The findings of the Commissioner ... as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive . . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). Substantial evidence is "evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion." Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966). While substantial evidence is not a "large or considerable amount of evidence, " Pierce v. Underwood, 487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988), it is "more than a mere scintilla . . . and somewhat less than a preponderance." Laws, 368 F.2d at 642. "In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner]." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996), superseded by regulation on other grounds, 20 C.F.R. § 416.927(d)(2)). Rather, in conducting the "substantial evidence" inquiry, the court's review is limited to whether the ALJ analyzed the relevant evidence and sufficiently explained his or her findings and rationale in crediting the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).


         The disability determination is based on a five-step sequential evaluation process as set forth in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520 and 416.920 under which the ALJ is to evaluate a claim:

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 [in severity] 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 ... past work or (5) any other work.

Albright v. Comm'r of the SSA, 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). "If an applicant's claim fails at any step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the subsequent steps." Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Id. At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the ALJ to show that other work exists in the national economy which the claimant can perform. Id.

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(c) and 4l6.920a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairments): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. Id. §§ 404.l520a(c)(3), 4l6.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." Id. §§ 404.l520a(e)(3), 4l6.920a(e)(3).

         In this case, Claimant alleges the following errors by the ALJ: (1) the RFC determination is not supported by substantial evidence; and (2) the credibility determination is not supported by substantial evidence. Pl.'s Mem. [DE-18] at 9-17.


         At step one, the ALJ found Claimant had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date. (R. 18). Next, the ALJ determined Claimant had the severe impairments of systemic lupus erythematosus, obesity, depression, and borderline intellectual functioning, and the non-severe impairments of costochondritis, low back strain, fibromyalgia, peripheral neuropathy, migraine headaches, and chondromalacia patella. (R. 19). At step three, the ALJ concluded Claimant's impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 19-21). Applying the technique prescribed by the regulations, the ALJ found that Claimant's mental impairments had resulted in no restrictions in activities of daily living, mild difficulties in social functioning, and moderate difficulties with regard to concentration, persistence, or pace, with no episodes of decompensation of an extended duration. (R. 20). Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Claimant's residual functional capacity ("RFC") finding that Claimant had the ability to perform a limited range of sedentary work[1] as follows:

         She can lift, carry, push, and pull 10 pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk two

hours in an eight-hour workday; sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently handle and finger with the bilateral upper extremities; occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can never be exposed to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, weather, or extreme cold. She can perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. She can make simple work-related decisions.

(R. 21-37). In making this assessment, the ALJ found Claimant's statements about her limitations were "not entirely consistent with the medical evidence and other evidence in the record for the reasons explained in this decision." (R. 23). At step four, the ALJ concluded Claimant did not have the RFC to perform the requirements of her past relevant work. (R. 37- 38). At step five, upon considering Claimant's age, education, work experience and RFC, the ALJ determined ...

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