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Stack v. Berryhill

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

May 7, 2018

KIMBERLY G. STACK, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          DENNIS L. HOWELL UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (# 9, 13). Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability benefits. The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons set forth below, the Court recommends that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be denied and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be granted.

         I. Procedural History

         On May 22, 2013, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits. (Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 59.) Plaintiff also protectively filed a Title XVI application for Supplemental Security Income on May 22, 2013. (T. 59.) In both applications, Plaintiff alleged a disability onset date of February 4, 2013. (T. 59.)

         The Social Security Administration denied both claims initially on September 18, 2013. (T. 59.) The claims were denied upon reconsideration on March 25, 2014. (T. 59.) On April 3, 2014, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (T. 59.)

         On October 28, 2015, a video disability hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (T. 59.) Plaintiff, represented by attorney Jill Wright, appeared in Charlotte, North Carolina. (T. 59.) The ALJ presided over the hearing from Baltimore, Maryland. (T. 59.) Bassey A. Duke, a vocational expert (“VE”), also appeared at the hearing.[1] (T. 59.)

         On December 23, 2015, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled from February 4, 2013, through the date of his decision. (T. 59-67.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. (T. 7.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T. 7-9.) On July 30, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Compl. (# 1)

         II. Standard for Determining Disability

         An individual is disabled for purposes of receiving disability payments if he or she is unable to “engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). The Commissioner undertakes a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Under the five-step sequential evaluation, the Commissioner must consider each of the following, in order: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful employment; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is sufficiently severe to meet or exceed the severity of one or more of the listing of impairments contained in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, subpart P; (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to perform any other work considering his or her age, education, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 916.920; Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.

         At the first two steps of the sequential evaluation, the burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing. Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If a claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at either of these first two steps, the ALJ will determine that the claimant is not disabled and the process comes to an end. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden remains on the claimant at step three to demonstrate that the claimant's impairments satisfy a listed impairment and, thereby, establish disability. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179.

         If the claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at step three, however, then the ALJ must still determine the claimant's RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four in order to determine whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. Id. The burden is on the claimant to demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform past work. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the ALJ determines that a claimant is not capable of performing past work, then the ALJ proceeds to step five. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635.

         At step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform other work. Id. The burden rests with the Commissioner at step five to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into account the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. Typically, the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five through the use of the testimony of a VE, who offers testimony in response to a hypothetical question from the ALJ that incorporates the claimant's limitations. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and deny the application(s) for disability benefits. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In his December 23, 2015, decision, the ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff was not disabled under Sections 216(i), 233(d), and 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (T. 67.) In support of this conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific findings:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through June 30, 2017.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since February 4, 2013, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq. and 416.971 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbar degenerative disc disease, myofascial pain and radiculopathy, status-post laminectomy and electric stimulation placement, and migraine headaches (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526, 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).[2]
(5) The claimant has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. ยงยง 404.1567(b), 416.967(b). The claimant can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, and never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. She ...

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