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Smith v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

July 16, 2018

BRIAN C. SMITH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Defendant's (“Commissioner's”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 14). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for Disability and Disability Insurance Benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1] Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title II benefits on December 10, 2013, alleging disability since June 21, 2013 as a result of a back injury, depression, and difficulties with his hearing and left foot. (Tr. 114, 223, 243). Plaintiff's application was initially denied on June 5, 2014 and again upon reconsideration on February 24, 2015. (Tr. 147, 156). Plaintiff subsequently filed a request for a hearing on April 21, 2015. (Tr. 164). On January 25, 2017, Administrative Law Judge James Griffith (“ALJ”) conducted a video hearing from his office in St. Louis, Missouri, while Plaintiff and his attorney were in Charlotte. (Tr. 78-81). The ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision dated March 13, 2017. (Tr. 9-24).

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for the evaluation of disability claims under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). (Tr. 13-14); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a). At the first step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since his alleged onset date of June 21, 2013. (Tr. 14). At the second step, the ALJ had several “severe impairments, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c), including degenerative arthritis, hearing loss, sciatica, and hallux valgus. (Tr. 14); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c) (“You must have a severe impairment. If you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled.”). At the third step, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination thereof that met or medically equaled any of the listed impairments (“the Listings”) found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 17).

         During his residual function capacity (“RFC”) analysis, the ALJ determined Plaintiff:

[H]as the residual function capacity to perform a range of light work . . . . Specifically, [Plaintiff] can lift and/or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently; can stand and/or walk two to four hours and sit about six hours in an eight-hour workday, with normal breaks; cannot climb ladders or scaffolds or crawl; only occasionally can use ramps and stairs, stoop, kneel, and crouch; and should avoid concentrated exposure to noise.

(Tr. 18). At step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff could perform his past work as a security guard “as generally performed.” (Tr. 23). The ALJ noted although the vocational expert (“VE”) testified Plaintiff's RFC would preclude performance of the security guard position as Plaintiff performed it in the past, the position as defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”) and as generally performed in the national economy would be available to Plaintiff. (Tr. 23). Accordingly, the ALJ decided Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 24).

         After receiving the written decision, Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on June 22, 2017. (Tr. 1). Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff brought the present suit before the Court to challenge the Commissioner's decision, and the case is now ripe for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Standard of Review

         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. When examining a disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013); Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because “it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 2013).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts do not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” courts defer to the ALJ's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.

         “In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a medically determinable impairment that precludes returning to past relevant work and adjustment to other work.” Flesher v. Berryhill, 697 Fed.Appx. 212 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1520(g)). In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Pursuant to this five-step process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment; (4) could return to his past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy. Id.; see also Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861; Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016).

         The Fourth Circuit has held:

If the claimant fails to demonstrate she has a disability that meets or medically equals a listed impairment at step three, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four, which is “the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations [that affect h[er] ability to work].”

Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861-62 (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1)) (alterations in original). In Lewis, the Fourth Circuit explained the considerations applied before moving to step four:

[The RFC] determination requires the ALJ to “first identify the individual's functional limitations or restrictions and assess his or her work-related abilities on a function-by-function basis, including the functions listed in the regulations.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (internal quotations omitted); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). Once the function-by-function analysis is complete, an ALJ may define the claimant's RFC “in terms of the exertional levels of work, sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy.” SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1. See generally 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567, 416.967 (defining “sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy” exertional requirements of work).
When assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ must examine “all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a)(2), 416.925(a)(2), “including those not labeled severe at step two.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. In addition, he must “consider all [the claimant's] symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which [her] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a). “When the medical signs or laboratory findings show that [the claimant has] a medically determinable impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce [her] symptoms, such as pain, [the ALJ] must then evaluate ...

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