United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division
BRIAN C. SMITH, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.
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). 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.
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).
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).
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).
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).
Standard of Review
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.
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.
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
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