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Griffin v. Berryhill

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

May 31, 2018

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



         In this action, plaintiff Lauren Marie Griffin (“plaintiff” or, in context, “claimant”) challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill (“Commissioner”) denying her application for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”) on the grounds that she is not disabled. The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 22, 24. Both filed memoranda in support of their respective motions. D.E. 23, 25. The motions were referred to the undersigned magistrate judge for a memorandum and recommendation pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). See 26 Jan. 2018 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that plaintiff's motion be allowed, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and this case be remanded for further proceedings.


         I. CASE HISTORY

         Plaintiff filed an application for SSI on 10 October 2008, alleging a disability onset date of 15 September 2008. Transcript of Proceedings (“Tr.”) 504. The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was timely filed. Tr. 504. On 4 August 2010, a video hearing (“2010 hearing”) was held before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”), at which plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 43-72, 504. The ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim on 9 September 2010 (“2010 decision”). Tr. 28-37.

         Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, but it issued an order denying review on 3 July 2012 (Tr. 1-6, 596-601 (duplicate)). Tr. 504. The ALJ's decision thereby became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1481.[1] On 6 September 2012, plaintiff appealed this decision to this court. See Griffin v. Colvin, 7:12-CV-259-D (E.D. N.C. ). On 24 February 2014, the court entered an order (Tr. 645-46) and judgment (Tr. 644) adopting the memorandum and recommendation (Tr. 647-56) on the 2010 decision and remanding the case for proper explanation of the weight accorded the various medical source opinions in the case. Tr. 504.

         In the meantime, on 8 August 2012, plaintiff filed an additional application for SSI, alleging a disability onset date of 7 August 2012. Tr. 504. This claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration. Tr. 504.

         On 17 March 2015, pursuant to this court's decision, the Appeals Council issued an order (Tr. 661-62) vacating the 2010 decision and remanding this case to an ALJ for further proceedings consistent with the court's ruling. Tr. 504. The Appeals Council's order also directed the ALJ to consolidate the claims files and issue a new decision on the consolidated claims. Tr. 504, 661.

         Pursuant to this remand, an ALJ different from the one who held the 2010 hearing conducted a video hearing on 7 April 2016. Tr. 504, 541-77. Plaintiff, who was again represented by counsel, and a vocational expert testified. Tr. 504. On 22 December 2016, the ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff's claim. Tr. 504-29.

         Plaintiff did not seek review by the Appeals Council, it did not otherwise assume jurisdiction, and the ALJ's decision thereby became the final decision of the Commissioner. See 20 C.F.R. § 416.1484(d). Plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review of that decision on 21 April 2017, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3). See Mot. to Proceed In Forma Pauperis (D.E. 1); Ord. Allowing Mot. (D.E. 4); Compl. (D.E. 5).


         The Social Security Act (“Act”) defines disability as the inability “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 twelve months.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); see Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). The Act defines a physical or mental impairment as “an impairment that results from anatomical, physiological, or psychological abnormalities which are demonstrable by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques.” 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(D). “[A]n individual shall be determined to be under a disability only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy . . . .” Id. (a)(3)(B).

         The disability regulations under the Act (“Regulations”) provide a five-step analysis that the ALJ must follow when determining whether a claimant is disabled:

To summarize, the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical impairments meet the [R]egulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the [R]egulations; at step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
The first four steps create a series of hurdles for claimants to meet. If the ALJ finds that the claimant has been working (step one) or that the claimant's medical impairments do not meet the severity and duration requirements of the [R]egulations (step two), the process ends with a finding of “not disabled.” At step three, the ALJ either finds that the claimant is disabled because her impairments match a listed impairment or continues the analysis. The ALJ cannot deny benefits at this step.
If the first three steps do not lead to a conclusive determination, the ALJ then assesses the claimant's residual functional capacity [“RFC”], which is “the most” the claimant “can still do despite” physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. [20 C.F.R.] § 416.945(a)(1). To make this assessment, the ALJ must “consider all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, ” including those not labeled severe at step two. Id. § 416.945(a)(2).
The ALJ then moves on to step four, where the ALJ can find the claimant not disabled because she is able to perform her past work. Or, if the exertion required for the claimant's past work exceeds her [RFC], the ALJ goes on to step five.
At step five, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claimant can perform other work that “exists in significant numbers in the national economy, ” considering the claimant's [RFC], age, education, and work experience. Id. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v); 416.960(c)(2); 416.1429. The Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the claimant's limitations. If the Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not disabled and denies the application for benefits.

Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015).


         Plaintiff was 23 years old on the date she filed her application for SSI, 10 October 2008, and 30 years old on the date of the hearing on 7 April 2016. See Tr. 528 ¶ 6. The ALJ found that plaintiff has a marginal education[2] (Tr. 528 ¶ 7) and no past relevant work (Tr. 528 ¶ 8).

         Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the application date. Tr. 507 ¶ 1. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff had the following medically determinable impairments that were severe within the meaning of the Regulations:

history of alcohol abuse; bipolar disorder; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); generalized anxiety disorder; oppositional defiant disorder (ODD); borderline personality disorder; degenerative disc disease; scoliosis; asthma; migraines; and right ear hearing loss . . . .

Tr. 507 ¶ 2. At step three, the ALJ found that plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals any of the Listings, including specifically Listing 12.04 for affective disorders. Tr. 507-11 ¶ 3.

         The ALJ next determined that plaintiff had the RFC to perform a limited range of light work:

After careful consideration of the entire record, I find that the claimant has the [RFC] to perform a range of light work as defined in 20 CFR 416.967(b).[3] The claimant is capable of lifting and/or carrying 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She is capable of standing and/or walking at least 6 hours in an 8-hour workday and sitting about 6 hours in an 8-hour workday. She can never climb ladders, ropes and scaffolds; frequently climb ramps and/or stairs, balance, kneel and crawl, and occasionally stoop and crouch. She must avoid concentrated exposure to noise, fumes, odors, dusts, gases and other respiratory irritants, and workplace hazards. She is limited to unskilled work defined as performing simple, routine and/or repetitive tasks. She is further limited to no production pace work (e.g., assembly line) but can perform goal oriented work (e.g. cleaner). She can have no ongoing interaction with the public and no team-type interaction with coworkers but incidental contact is allowed.

Tr. 511-12 ¶ 4.

         The ALJ found at step four that plaintiff has no past relevant work. Tr. 528 ¶ 5. At step five, the ALJ accepted the testimony of the vocational expert and found that there were jobs in the national economy existing in significant numbers that plaintiff could perform, including jobs in the occupations of laundry garment bagger and garment sorter. Tr. 528-29 ¶ 9. The ALJ accordingly concluded that ...

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