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Honaker v. Berryhill

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

May 7, 2018

DONALD HONAKER, 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 Donald Honaker's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10), filed January 30, 2018, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 12), filed February 26, 2018. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for disability benefits.

         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 Defendant'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

         Plaintiff filed an applications for Title II benefits in July 2013 and Title XVI benefits in May 2014. (Tr. 11, 155). Plaintiff alleged disability beginning February 27, 2012. (Tr. 59). The claim was denied initially on March 27, 2014 (Tr. 87), and upon reconsideration on May 14, 2014 (Tr. 96). Plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing on May 20, 2014. (Tr. 11, 112). After a hearing before the ALJ on April 28, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision, finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 11, 24, 119). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied. (Tr. 1).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 27, 2012 (Tr. 13) and had the severe impairments of degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine and a right shoulder tear (Tr. 14). The ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart B, App. 1. (Tr. 14). The ALJ then found Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform a light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) “except the claimant can occasionally reach in all directions with one upper extremity.” (Tr. 14). The ALJ found Plaintiff was unable to perform his past relevant work as an inside upholsterer and outside upholsterer, because they have an exertional level of medium. (Tr. 17). 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 could perform jobs available in the national economy and listed those jobs and the number of available jobs. (Tr. 18). Based on the ALJ's testimony, the ALJ concluded jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, rendering Plaintiff not disabled as defined by the Social Security Act. (Tr. 18).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties' Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for review.

         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). We 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, ” we 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. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1)). In Lewis, the Fourth Circuit explained the considerations applied before moving to step four:

[The RFC] determination requires the ALJ to “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.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (internal quotations omitted); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). 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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