United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge
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) for a new hearing.
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
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).
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.
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). 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.
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
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. §§ ...