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Gill v. Berryhill

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

May 7, 2018

DONNA KAY GILL, 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 Donna Kay Gill's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), these motions were referred to the magistrate judge for issuance of a Memorandum and Recommendation (“M&R”) for disposition (Doc. No. 17). The M&R recommends Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment be denied, the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted, and the Commissioner's decision affirmed. Plaintiff filed objections to the M&R (Doc. No. 18), and Defendant filed a response (Doc. No. 19). This matter is now ripe for review.

         For the reasons set forth, the Court OVERRULES Plaintiff's objections, ACCEPTS and ADOPTS the M&R, DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, GRANTS the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, and AFFIRMS the Commissioner's decision.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff does not lodge any specific objections to the procedural history section contained in the M&R. Indeed, the M&R adopts the procedural history as stated by the parties. Therefore, the portion of the M&R entitled “Procedural History” is hereby adopted and incorporated by reference as if fully set forth herein. (Doc. No. 17 at 1).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. Review of a Memorandum and Recommendation

         A district court may assign dispositive pretrial matters, including motions for summary judgment, to a magistrate judge for “proposed findings of fact and recommendations.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) & (B). The Federal Magistrate Act provides that a district court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). However, “when objections to strictly legal issues are raised and no factual issues are challenged, de novo review of the record may be dispensed with.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982) (citations omitted). De novo review is also not required “when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Id. (citations omitted). Similarly, when no objection is filed, “a district court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72, advisory committee note).

         B. Review of a Social Security Appeal When reviewing a Social Security disability determination, a reviewing court must “uphold the determination when an [Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”)] has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). It “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir.2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the Court does “not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id. (brackets, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In considering an application for disability benefits, an ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate the disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). 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.” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861. Here, the ALJ considers the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to determine what is “the most” the claimant “can still do despite” physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. Id. § 416.945(a)(1); § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

In making this assessment, the ALJ must first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions' listed in the regulations. Only after such a function-by-function analysis may an ALJ express RFC in terms of the exertional levels of work.

         Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179 (citations and quotations omitted). Once the function-by-function analysis is complete, an ALJ may define the claimant's RFC “in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. See generally 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567, 416.967 (defining “sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy” exertional requirements of work).

When assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ must examine “all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a)(2), 416.925(a)(2), “including those not labeled severe at step two.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. In addition, he must “consider all [the claimant's] symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which [her] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a). “When the medical signs or laboratory findings show that [the claimant has] a medically determinable impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce [her] symptoms, such as pain, [the ALJ] must then evaluate ...

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