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Cox v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2018

PATRICIA M. COX, 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 Patricia Cox's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed on November 6, 2017, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security's (“Commissioner” or “Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15) filed on February 2, 2018. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”).

         For the reasons set forth, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, DENIES Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, and REMANDS this matter pursuant to Sentence Four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)[1] for proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff applied for SSI benefits under Title XVI on December 20, 2012, alleging disability beginning November 16, 2011. (Tr. 18, 122). Plaintiff's claim was initially denied on May 21, 2013 (Tr. 117), and then was denied again upon reconsideration on December 23, 2013 (Tr. 127). Plaintiff filed a request for an administrative hearing on January 24, 2014 (Tr. 137), and a hearing was conducted with Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) via video conference on September 11, 2015 (Tr. 171, 191). At the initial hearing, the ALJ scheduled a supplemental hearing for April 20, 2016, so additional consultative exam reports could be filed. (Tr. 41, 201, 221). On May 4, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable written decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. (Tr. 15).

         The ALJ's decision found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity from the application date through the date of the decision and that she had the following severe impairments: major depressive disorder, panic attacks, epilepsy, and back pain. (Tr. 20). The ALJ determined that none of these impairments nor any combination of the impairments met or medically equaled a per se disabled medical listing under 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart. P, App. 1. (Tr. 21).

         The ALJ then found Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR § 416.967(b):

[E]xcept she can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. She will be able to push and pull as much as she can lift and carry. The [Plaintiff] will be able to sit, stand, and walk for 6 hours in an eight-hour workday. She will be able to stoop frequently. The claimant c[an] never operate a motor vehicle. She will be able to understand, remember and carry out instructions and she is limited to perform simple, routine tasks. The [Plaintiff] will be able to frequently respond appropriately to supervisors and occasionally respond appropriately to coworkers and the public. With respect to dealing with changes in the work setting, she will be limited to simple work-related functions.

(Tr. 24). In determining Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ assigned great weight to the opinion of Dr. Lori Schneider (“Schneider”) and Dr. Walter McNulty (“McNulty”). (Tr. 28-29). Both Schneider and McNulty reported one of the reasons they were seeing Plaintiff was for Plaintiff's attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) and learning disabilities. (Tr. 677, 683). Schneider recorded Plaintiff having ADHD and learning disabilities (Tr. 685) while McNulty said it was “unclear whether or not [Plaintiff] would meet the formal diagnostic criteria for [ADHD] at this point.” (Tr. 680). In listing Plaintiff's medications, neither Schneider or McNulty noted Plaintiff taking any ADHD medications. (Tr. 678, 684). McNulty found Plaintiff was moderately impaired in her motivation, ability to tolerate stress, and ability to tolerate the stress and pressures associated with day-to-day work activity, while her ability to relate to coworkers and supervisors was at least mildly impaired. (Tr. 681).

         In response to a hypothetical that factored in Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the vocational expert ("VE") testified that such an individual can perform jobs in the national economy that exist in significant numbers. (Tr. 31). Thus, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 32). Thereafter, Plaintiff filed a request for review with the Appeals Council on June 27, 2016, which was denied on April 26, 2017. (Tr. 1-2). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals the Commissioner's decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3).


         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. ...

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