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Craig v. Berryhill

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

July 30, 2018

CARLA CRAIG, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          FRANK D. WHITNEY CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Carla Craig's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 17). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).[1] For the reasons that follow, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Carla Craig (“Plaintiff”) filed an application for disability and disability insurance benefits on November 22, 2013 (Tr. 24, 38), alleging disability since January 1, 2008. (Tr. 24, 165). Plaintiff's application was initially denied on April 15, 2014 (Tr. 99) and denied again at reconsideration on June 2, 2014 (Tr. 108). Plaintiff filed a request for a hearing on June 19, 2014. (Tr. 24). An Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) conducted the hearing in Charlotte, North Carolina, on May 24, 2016. (Tr. 128, 141). The ALJ denied Craig's application in a written decision dated August 3, 2016. (Tr. 21).

         In reaching her decision, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for the evaluation of claims for disability under the Act. (Tr. 25-38); 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4). At step one of the process, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the Plaintiff's application date, November 22, 2013. (Tr. 26). At step two, the ALJ found Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “hypertension, obesity, right knee degenerative joint disease, degenerative disc disease, bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[.]” (Tr. 26). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did “not have an impairment or combination of impairments” that met or medically equaled any of the Listings found in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. (Tr. 27).

         Then, the ALJ determined Plaintiff:

has the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 [§] CFR 416.967(b) except she would need to alternate between sitting and standing, up to two times each hour. She can frequently, but not continuously perform all postural activities, but should avoid workplace hazards, such as ladders, ropes, scaffolds, unprotected heights, and machinery with dangerous parts. She can maintain occasional public contact or interactions and can otherwise frequently, but not continuously, interact with coworkers and supervisors. She can follow short simple instructions, not detailed, and perform detailed tasks, but no work requiring a production rate or demand pace. She should avoid crisis situations[, ] complex decision making[, ] or constant changes in routine setting. Stay on task, sustaining attention and concentration for two hours at a time, and would need one to two additional five min[ute] rest breaks.

(Tr. 29). Also, at step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff could no longer perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. 37). At step five, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, the Vocational Expert's (“VE”) testimony, and information provided by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (“DOT”), and found that in light of those factors, Plaintiff could perform other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 37). Accordingly, the ALJ decided Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 38).

         On July 28, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request to review the hearing decision. (Tr. 1). Therefore, the ALJ's August 3, 2016, decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Subsequently, Plaintiff brought this action and the parties filed motions for summary judgement. The motions are now ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD OF 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). 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(a). 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. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a); 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. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1)). In Lewis, the Fourth Circuit explained the considerations applied before moving to step four:

[The RFC] determination requires the ALJ to “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.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 636 (internal quotations omitted); see also SSR 96-8p, 1996 WL 374184, at *1 (July 2, 1996). 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. §§ 404.1567, 416.967 (defining “sedentary, light, medium, heavy, and very heavy” exertional requirements of work).
When assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ must examine “all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a)(2), 416.925(a)(2), “including those not labeled severe at step two.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. In addition, he must “consider all [the claimant's] symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which [her] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a). “When the medical signs or laboratory findings show that [the claimant has] a medically determinable impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce [her] symptoms, such as pain, [the ALJ] must then evaluate ...

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