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Owens v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2018

LARRY OWENS, 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 Larry Owens's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 8), filed March 26, 2018, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 10), filed May 24, 2018. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on his application for Disability Insurance Benefits. For the reasons that follow, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment; DENIES the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment; and REVERSES the Commissioner's decision and REMANDS this matter pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)[1] for a new hearing.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Title II benefits on December 9, 2013, alleging disability beginning June 25, 2012. (Tr. 18, 62). The claim was denied initially on May 28, 2014, and upon reconsideration on September 22, 2014. (Tr. 78, 85). Plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing, and an Administrative Law Judge (“the ALJ”) held a hearing on December 28, 2016. (Tr. 18, 29). On January 26, 2017, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Plaintiff was not disabled.

(Tr. 15).

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 25, 2012 and had the severe impairments of diabetes, diabetic retinopathy with left branch vein occlusion, diabetic neuropathy, and chronic back strain. (Tr. 20). The ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart B, App. 1. (Tr. 20). The ALJ then found Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”):

to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. [§] 404.1567(c) except he is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds and must avoid concentrated exposure to fumes, odors, dusts, gases, poor ventilation, and hazards. The claimant also has monocular vision so he must avoid tasks that require binocular vision.

(Tr. 21). The ALJ found Plaintiff unable to perform past relevant work. (Tr. 22). However, based on age, education, work experience, and the RFC, the VE produced a list of jobs available in significant numbers that Plaintiff could perform. (Tr. 23-24).

         Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on October 5, 2017. (Tr. 1). Thus, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Having exhausted administrative remedies, Plaintiff commenced this action under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). The parties' Motions for Summary Judgment are now ripe for 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). We 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, ” we 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).

         “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. ยงยง ...

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