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Singleton v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2018

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 William Lee Singleton's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Defendant Nancy A. Berryhill's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15). Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), these motions were referred to the magistrate judge for issuance of a Memorandum and Recommendation (“M&R”) for disposition (Doc. No. 17). The M&R recommends Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment be granted, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment be denied, and the Commissioner's decision be reversed with instructions to remand for further proceedings. Defendant filed objections to the M&R (Doc. No. 18), and Plaintiff filed a response brief (Doc. No. 19). This matter is now ripe for review.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On February 17, 2012, Plaintiff sought benefits under Title II and Title XVI, alleging a disability onset date of January 10, 2010. (Tr. 415, 421). Plaintiff remained eligible for benefits through June 30, 2016. (Tr. 22). Plaintiff's applications were denied initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 247, 260, 268). After a hearing on January 14, 2014, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision on April 10, 2014. (Tr. 135, 223). Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council, and the Appeals Council remanded for a new hearing. (Tr. 242). On remand from the Appeals Council, the ALJ held a hearing on September 16, 2016 (Tr. 48) and issued his decision denying Plaintiff's claim on November 28, 2016 (Tr. 15).

         Plaintiff requested review. (Tr. 5). The Appeals Council added to the record additional evidence when it considered Plaintiff's request to review the ALJ's November 28, 2016 determination. (Tr. 5). The Appeals Council describes the additional evidence as “Exhibit 36B” “Request for Review from Lauren E. Hudachko[, ] Received December 20, 2016 (3 pages).” (Tr. 5, 412-414). On July 14, 2017, that the Appeals Council denied review (Tr. 1), making the ALJ's November 28, 2016 decision the final decision of the Secretary, Wilkins v. Secretary Dept. of Health and Human Servs., 953 F.2d 93, 96 (1991) (citations omitted). Plaintiff subsequently brought this action.

         A North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services decision (NCDHHS) dated September 11, 2014 finding Plaintiff disabled for Medicaid purposes and eligible for Medicaid from December 1, 2013 to February 28, 2014 and March 1, 2014 to July 31, 2015 is also in the record. (Tr. 82). It appears Plaintiff's counsel previously submitted the NCDHHS disability determination to the Appeals Council by fax in September 2014 and January 2015. (Tr. 79-81). It is not clear when the NCDHHS disability determination was added to the record; however, it is not listed in the ALJ's November 28, 2016 decision as part of the record. (Tr. 34-47).


         A. Review of a Memorandum and Recommendation A district court may assign dispositive pretrial matters, including motions for summary judgment, to a magistrate judge for “proposed findings of fact and recommendations.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(A) & (B). The Federal Magistrate Act provides that a district court “shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report or specified proposed findings or recommendations to which objection is made.” 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(C); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 72(b)(3). De novo review is also not required “when a party makes general and conclusory objections that do not direct the court to a specific error in the magistrate's proposed findings and recommendations.” Orpiano v. Johnson, 687 F.2d 44, 47 (4th Cir. 1982) (citations omitted). Similarly, when no objection is filed, “a district court need not conduct a de novo review, but instead must ‘only satisfy itself that there is no clear error on the face of the record in order to accept the recommendation.'” Diamond v. Colonial Life & Acc. Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 310, 315 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 72, advisory committee note).

         B. Review of a Social Security Appeal

         When reviewing a Social Security disability determination, a reviewing court must “uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). It “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir.2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the Court does “not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id. (brackets, citation, and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In considering an application for disability benefits, an ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate the disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). 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.” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861. Here, the ALJ considers the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to determine what is “the most” the claimant “can still do despite” physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. Id. § 416.945(a)(1); § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

In making this assessment, the ALJ must 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. Only after such a function-by-function analysis may an ALJ express RFC in terms of the exertional levels of work.

Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179 (citations and quotations omitted). 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. ยงยง 404.1567, 416.967 (defining ...

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