United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge
Rhonda Faye Lee, brought this action pursuant to the Social
Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial
review of a final decision of Defendant, the Acting
Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's
claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).
(Docket Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified
administrative record (Docket Entry 5 (cited herein as
“Tr. __”)), and both parties have moved for
judgment (Docket Entries 7, 10; see also Docket
Entry 9 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 11
(Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow,
the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
applied for DIB, alleging an onset date of June 27, 2011.
(Tr. 174-75.) Upon denial of that application initially (Tr.
62-74, 95-103) and on reconsideration (Tr. 75-91, 105-12),
Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an
Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 113).
Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert
(“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 33-61.) The ALJ
subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled
under the Act. (Tr. 10-28.) The Appeals Council thereafter
denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6, 7-9,
228-35), thereby making the ALJ's ruling the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial
rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the
following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the
 Act through December 31, 2016.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since June 27, 2011, the alleged onset date.
. . .
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, arthritis of
the bilateral knees, depressive disorder, and bipolar
. . .
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
. . .
5. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to
perform light work . . . except [Plaintiff] can occasionally
climb ladders, ropes or scaffolds, stairs or ramps.
[Plaintiff] can occasionally stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl and
occasionally engage in activities requiring balance.
[Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to operational
control of moving machinery or unprotected heights.
[Plaintiff] is able to perform simple, routine and repetitive
tasks and work in [a] low-stress job defined as occasional
decision-making and occasional changes in the work setting.
. . .
6. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work.
. . .
10. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that [Plaintiff] can perform.
. . .
11. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined
in the  Act, from June 27, 2011, through the date of this
(Tr. 15-28 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations
law “authorizes judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits.”
Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir.
2006). However, “the scope of [the Court's] review
of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.”
Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981).
Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the
extremely limited review standard.
Standard of Review
are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.”
Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir.
1974). Instead, the Court “must uphold the factual
findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial
evidence and were reached through application of the correct
legal standard.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561
(internal brackets and quotation marks omitted).
“Substantial evidence means ‘such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.'” Hunter v.
Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (quoting
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)).
“It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence
but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.”
Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)
(brackets and internal quotation marks omitted). “If
there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict
were the case before a jury, then there is substantial
evidence.” Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal
quotation marks omitted).
reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].”
Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and
quotation marks omitted). “Where conflicting evidence
allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is
disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the
[Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179
(internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before
[the Court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is
disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the
claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial
evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of
the relevant law.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d
585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
confronting that issue, the Court must take note that
“[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context,
“disability” means 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
12 months, '” id. (quoting 42 U.S.C.
§ 423(d)(1)(A)). “To regularize the adjudicative
process, the Social Security Administration has . . .
detailed regulations incorporating longstanding
medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account
a claimant's age, education, and work experience in
addition to [the claimant's] medical condition.”
Id. “These regulations establish a
‘sequential evaluation process' to determine
whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.
sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to
five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in
‘substantial gainful activity, ' i.e.,
currently working; and (2) must have a ‘severe'
impairment that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings'
of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to
the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual
functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past
work or (5) any other work.” Albright v.
Commissioner of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475
n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at any
of several points in the SEP forecloses an award and ends the
inquiry. For example, “[t]he first step determines
whether the claimant is engaged in ‘substantial gainful
activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are
denied. The second step determines if the claimant is
‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are
denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157,
159 (4th Cir. 1990).
other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each
of the first three steps, “the claimant is
disabled.” Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177.
Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but
falters at step three, i.e., “[i]f a claimant's
impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a
listed impairment, the ALJ must assess the claimant's
residual functional capacity (‘RFC').”
Id. at 179. Step four then requires the ALJ to assess
whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can perform past
relevant work; if so, the claimant does not qualify as
disabled. See id. at 179-80. However, if the
claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work,
the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, whereupon the ALJ
must decide “whether the claimant is able to perform
other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the
claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and
past work experience) to adjust to a new job.”
Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the
Commissioner cannot carry its “evidentiary burden of
proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs
available in the community, ” the claimant qualifies as
disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.