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Donathan v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

June 15, 2018

JOE DONATHAN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          L. Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff, Joe Donathan, 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”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). (Docket Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified administrative record (Docket Entry 8 (cited herein as “Tr. ”)), and both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 11, 13; see also Docket Entry 12 (Plaintiff's Memorandum), Docket Entry 14 (Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should remand this matter for further administrative proceedings.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB and SSI, alleging an onset date of July 1, 2011. (Tr. 188-202.) Upon denial of those applications initially (Tr. 60-87, 118-23) and on reconsideration (Tr. 88-117, 124-27, 130-34), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 137-38). Plaintiff, who proceeded through counsel, Plaintiff's daughter, and a vocational expert (“VE”) testified at the hearing. (Tr. 27-59.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 8-21.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-5, 186-87, 296-97), making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In 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 July 1, 2011, the alleged onset date.
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease; major depressive disorder, recurrent, moderate to severe; generalized anxiety disorder; and borderline intellectual functioning.
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, Appendix 1.
5. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work . . . with exceptions: He can walk for two hours. He requires the use of an assistive device. He can occasionally reach overhead, bilaterally. He can occasionally climb ramps and stairs. He can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. He can occasionally balance. He can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. He is limited to hearing and understanding simple, oral instructions and to communicating simple information. He can avoid ordinary hazards in the work place, such as boxes on the floor, doors ajar, etc. He is limited to occasional exposure to unprotected heights and moving mechanical parts. He can occasionally operate a motor vehicle. He is limited to performing simple, routine and repetitive tasks. He cannot perform work at a production rate pace. He can make simple, work-related decisions. He can occasionally respond appropriately to coworkers and the public.
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 No. in the national economy that [he] can perform.
11. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the [] Act, from July 1, 2011, through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 13-20 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)


         Federal 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). Even given those limitations, the Court should remand this case for further administrative proceedings.

         A. Standard of Review

         “[C]ourts 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, 390 (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) (internal citations and ...

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