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Barfield v. Berryhill

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

June 25, 2018

Brigette Denise Barfield, Plaintiff,
v.
Nancy A. Berryhill, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION

          ROBERT T. NUMBERS, II UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Brigette Barfield instituted this action in June 2017, to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Barfield claims that Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Kelly Davis erred in failing to explain properly why a disability decision rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs (“VA”) was not given substantial weight. Both Barfield and Defendant Nancy Berryhill have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 11, 17.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that the record does not support ALJ Davis's reasoning for giving little weight to the VA disability finding. Therefore, the undersigned magistrate judge recommends that the court grant Barfield's motion, deny Berryhill's motion, and remand the matter to the Commissioner for further consideration.[1]

         I. Background

         In May 2012, Barfield filed an application for disability benefits alleging a disability that began in February 2007. After her claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Barfield appeared at a hearing before an ALJ to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. The ALJ determined that Barfield was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 135-50. The Appeals Council then remanded the case for further consideration.

         Following a supplemental hearing in March 2016, ALJ Davis determined that Barfield was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 22-34. ALJ Davis found that Barfield had the following severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, asthma, obesity, torn left rotator cuff, palindromic rheumatism, and hypertension. Tr. at 24. ALJ Davis found that Barfield's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 25.

         ALJ Davis determined that Barfield had the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work from her onset date through December 31, 2012, her date last insured. Tr. at 26. Barfield can occasionally climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, crawl, and balance. Id. Barfield must avoid even moderate exposure to pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, dusts, gases, and poor ventilation. Id. She should also avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as machinery and heights. Id. Barfield can occasionally reach overhead with her upper left extremity and she can frequently handle and finger with both upper extremities. Id.

         ALJ Davis concluded that Barfield cannot perform her past relevant work as a corrections officer. Tr. at 32. But considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, ALJ Davis found that there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Barfield could perform. Tr. at 32-33. These jobs include: non-postal mail clerk, clerical assistant, and router. Id. Thus, ALJ Davis found that Barfield was not disabled. Tr. at 33-34.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Barfield began this action in June 2017. D.E. 1.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The analysis requires the ALJ to consider the following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: ...


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