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Hobbs v. Berryhill

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

July 5, 2018

DEETTA HOBBS, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          James E. Gates, United States Magistrate Judge.

         In this action, plaintiff DeEtta Hobbs ("plaintiff or, in context, "claimant") challenges the final decision of defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill ("Commissioner") denying her applications for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits ("DIB") and supplemental security income ("SSI") on the grounds that she is not disabled.[1] The case is before the court on the parties' motions for judgment on the pleadings. D.E. 17, 22. Each party filed a memorandum in support of its motion. D.E. 18, 23. 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 19 Mar. 2018 Text Ord. For the reasons set forth below, it will be recommended that plaintiffs motion be allowed, the Commissioner's motion be denied, and this case be remanded.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Case History

         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on 16 January 2014, alleging a disability onset date of 11 November 2013. Transcript of Proceedings ("Tr.") 13. The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for a hearing was timely filed. Tr. 13. On 18 July 2016, a hearing was held before an ALJ, at which the witnesses were plaintiff, who was represented by counsel, and a vocational expert. Tr. 32-62. At the hearing, plaintiff amended her alleged onset date to 2 August 2014. Tr. 13, 36, 518. The ALJ issued a decision denying plaintiff s claims on 31 August 2016. Tr. 13-26.

         Plaintiff timely requested review by the Appeals Council and on 16 June 2017, the Appeals Council denied the request for review. Tr. 1. At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the final decision of the Commissioner. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. On 12 July 2017, plaintiff commenced this proceeding for judicial review of the ALJ's decision, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) (DIB) and 1383(c)(3) (SSI). See Mot. to Proceed In Forma Pauperis ("IFP") (D.E. 3) (12 July 2017); Ord. Allowing IFP Mot. (D.E 6) (17 July 2017); Comp. (D.E. 7) (17 July 2017).

         B. Standards for Disability

         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 12 months." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); see Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(A); Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). "An 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." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A); see Id. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). 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." Id. §§ 423(d)(3), 1382c(a)(3)(D).

         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 [Regulations' severity and duration requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the [Regulations; 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 [Regulations (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 [i.e., a listing in 20 C.F.R. pt. 404, subpt. P, app. 1 ("the Listings")] 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).[2] 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).[3]
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.[4] 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).

         C. ALJ's Findings

         Plaintiff was 48 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 50 years old on the date of the hearing. Tr. 63, 95. Plaintiff testified that she works part time and attends community college. Tr. 18 ¶ 4; 19 ¶ 5; 38-40. The ALJ found that she has past relevant work as an executive secretary, receptionist, cashier, and property manager. Tr. 25-26 ¶ 6.

         Applying the five-step analysis of 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4) and 416.920(a)(4), the ALJ found at step one that plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the amended alleged disability onset date. Tr. 15 ¶ 2. At step two, the ALJ found that plaintiff has the severe impairments of multiple sclerosis, spine disorders, and obesity. Tr. 15 ¶ 3. 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. Tr. 17 ¶ 4.

         The ALJ next found that plaintiff has the RFC to perform a limited range of sedentary work:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the [RFC] to perform less than sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a).[5] She can lift, carry, push and pull 10 pounds occasionally; stand and/or walk two hours in an eight-hour workday; sit six hours in an eight-hour workday; frequently climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds; and frequently balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. She can never be exposed to unprotected heights and can occasionally be exposed to moving mechanical parts.

Tr. 18-19 ¶ 5.

         Based on her determination of plaintiff s RFC, the ALJ found at step four that plaintiff was able to perform her past relevant work as an executive secretary and receptionist. Tr. 25-26 ¶ 6. The ALJ accordingly concluded that plaintiff was not disabled from the amended alleged disability onset date, 2 August 2014, through the date of the decision, 31 August 2016. Tr. 26 ¶ 7.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3), judicial review of the final decision of the Commissioner is limited to considering whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence in the record and whether the appropriate legal standards were applied. See Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Unless the court finds that the Commissioner's decision is not supported by substantial evidence or that the wrong legal standard was applied, the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. See Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). Substantial evidence is "such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Perales, 402 U.S. at 401 (quoting Consol. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). It is more than a scintilla of evidence, but somewhat less than a preponderance. Id.

         The court may not substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner as long as the decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). In addition, the court may not make findings of fact, revisit inconsistent evidence, or make determinations of credibility. See Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979). A Commissioner's decision based on substantial evidence must be affirmed, even if the reviewing court would have reached a different conclusion. Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775.

         Before a court can determine whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence, it must ascertain whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight given to probative evidence. See Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers,131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997). "Judicial review of an administrative decision is impossible without an adequate explanation of that decision by the administrator." DeLoat ...


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