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Scott-Grant v. Berryhill

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

May 7, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Karen D. Scott-Grant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed on January 19, 2018, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) filed on March 20, 2018.

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS in part and DENIES in part Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; DENIES the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment; and REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this matter pursuant to Sentence Four 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)[1] for proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In April 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for Title II and Title XVI disability benefits, alleging disability beginning August 3, 2012. (Tr. 213, 219, 63). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 135, 146, 154), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 164). After the hearing on April 14, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 13). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was subsequently denied. (Tr. 1).

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled from the alleged onset date through the date of the decision. (Tr. 16). 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 mellitus type II, hypertension, unspecified arthropathy, mood disorder and anxiety disorder.” (Tr. 18). 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. 19). 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 is limited to frequent, but not constant, handling and fingering bilaterally; she must be permitted to alternate between sitting and standing at 30 minute[] intervals; she is limited to occasional climbing of ladders; frequent climbing of stairs, balancing, stooping, crouching, kneeling and crawling; no concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights; she is further limited to simple routine and repetitive tasks involving no more than occasional public contact.

(Tr. 20). 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. 24). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 25).

         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 failed to make a complete finding of Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity and relied on testimony from the VE that appears to conflict with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”).


         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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