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Sanchez-Olivares v. Berryhill

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

July 23, 2018

CHANDRA FAITH SANCHEZ-OLIVARES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Dennis L. Howell United States Magistrate Judge

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (# 10, 12). Plaintiff brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) to obtain judicial review of the final decision by the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”) denying her claim for disability benefits. The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is now ripe for ruling. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment is DENIED and the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment is GRANTED.[1]

         I. Procedural History

         On January 3, 2014, Plaintiff protectively filed a Title II application for a period of disability and disability insurance benefits, which alleged disability beginning January 1, 2014. (Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 20.) The Social Security Administration denied Plaintiff's claim initially on February 4, 2014. (T. 20.) The claim was denied upon reconsideration on April 29, 2014. (T. 20.) On May 8, 2014, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (T. 20.)

         On April 8, 2016, a disability hearing was held before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) in Charlotte, North Carolina. (T. 20.) Jacqueline Merritt-Kennedy, a vocational expert (“VE”), appeared at the hearing. (T. 20.) Beth R. Setzer, an attorney, represented Plaintiff. (T. 20.)

         The ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff had not been under a disability, as defined by the Social Security Act, from January 1, 2014, through the date of his decision, June 14, 2016. (T. 20-32.) Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. (T. 9.) The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (T. 9-11.) On August 4, 2017, Plaintiff filed the instant action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Compl. (# 1).

         II. Standard for Determining Disability

         An individual is disabled for purposes of receiving disability payments if he or she is unable 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); accord Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). The Commissioner undertakes a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Under the five-step sequential evaluation, the Commissioner must consider each of the following, in order: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful employment; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is sufficiently severe to meet or medically equal the severity of one or more of the listing of impairments contained in Appendix 1 of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P; (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to perform any other work considering his or her age, education, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.

         At the first two steps of the sequential evaluation, the burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing. Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If a claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at either of these first two steps, the ALJ will determine that the claimant is not disabled and the process comes to an end. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden remains on the claimant at step three to demonstrate that the claimant's impairments satisfy a listed impairment and, thereby, establish disability. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179.

         If the claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at step three, however, then the ALJ must still determine the claimant's RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four in order to determine whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. Id. The burden is on the claimant to demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform past work. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the ALJ determines that a claimant is not capable of performing past work, then the ALJ proceeds to step five. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635.

         At step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform other work. Id. The burden rests with the Commissioner at step five to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the claimant is capable of performing other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, taking into account the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. Typically, the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five through the use of the testimony of a VE, who offers testimony in response to a hypothetical question from the ALJ that incorporates the claimant's limitations. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and deny the application for disability benefits. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In his June 14, 2016 decision, the ALJ ultimately found that Plaintiff was not disabled under sections 216(i) and 233(d) of the Social Security Act. (T. 32.) In support of this conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific findings:

(1) The claimant meets the insured status requirements of the Social Security Act through December 31, 2017.
(2) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 1, 2014, the alleged onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1571 et seq.).
(3) The claimant has the following severe impairments: lumbago, osteoarthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, and obesity[2] (20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c)).
(4) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, and 404.1526).
(5) The claimant has the RFC to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b), except she can only occasionally climb ladders, frequently but not constantly perform handling and fingering with the bilateral upper extremities, and she needs to avoid concentrated exposure to hazards.[3], [4]
(6) The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a fast food services manager. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's RFC (20 C.F.R. § 404.1565).
(7) The claimant was born on May 4, 1975, and she was 38 years old, which is defined as a younger individual age 18-49, on the alleged disability onset date (20 C.F.R. § 404.1563).[5]
(8) The claimant has at least a high school education, and she is able to communicate in English (20 ...

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