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McNair v. Berryhill

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

January 2, 2019

DOROTHY MCNAIR, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & RECOMMENDATION

          KIMBERLY A. SWANK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dorothy McNair (“Plaintiff”) filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her application for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Social Security Income (SSI). The time for filing responsive briefs has expired, and the pending motions are ripe for adjudication. Having carefully reviewed the administrative record and the motions and memoranda submitted by the parties, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE-18] be denied and Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE-20] be granted.

         STATEMENT OF THE CASE

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for a period of disability, DIB, and SSI in November 2010 (R. 164. 165, 299), alleging disability beginning January 1, 2008 (R. 144). The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 144, 154, 215.) On February 25, 2013, a video hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Maria C. Northington (“ALJ Northington”), at which Plaintiff appeared without counsel. (R. 39-80.) ALJ Northington issued a decision denying Plaintiff's claims on April 18, 2013 (R. 189- 205), and Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council (R. 211-214). On June 17, 2014, the Appeals Council entered an order remanding the case for further administrative action. (R. 211-214.)

         On September 16, 2015, Plaintiff received an in-person hearing before Administrative Law Judge Christopher Willis (“ALJ”), again proceeding without counsel. (R. 81-139.) On June 24, 2016, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (R. 16-29.) Plaintiff requested review by the Appeals Council. (R. 293-94.) On May 8, 2017, the Appeals Council admitted into the record additional evidence submitted by Plaintiff and denied Plaintiff's request for review. (R. 3-7.) At that time, the decision of the ALJ became the Commissioner's final decision. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. Plaintiff seeks judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Standard of Review

         The scope of judicial review of a final agency decision denying disability benefits is limited to determining whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's factual findings and whether the decision was reached through the application of the correct legal standards. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987). Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion; [i]t consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted) (alteration in original). “In reviewing for substantial evidence, [the court should not] undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the [Commissioner].” Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Craig, 76 F.3d at 589) (internal quotation marks omitted) (first and second alterations in original). Rather, in conducting the “substantial evidence” inquiry, the court determines whether the Commissioner has considered all relevant evidence and sufficiently explained the weight accorded to the evidence. Sterling Smokeless Coal Co. v. Akers, 131 F.3d 438, 439-40 (4th Cir. 1997).

         II. Disability Determination

         In making a disability determination, the Commissioner utilizes a five-step evaluation process. The Commissioner asks, sequentially, whether the claimant: (1) is engaged in substantial gainful activity; (2) has a severe impairment; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1; (4) can perform the requirements of past work; and, if not, (5) based on the claimant's age, work experience, and residual functional capacity can adjust to other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; see also Albright v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). The burden of proof and production during the first four steps of the inquiry rests on the claimant. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995). At the fifth step, the burden shifts to the Commissioner to show that other work exists in the national economy that the claimant can perform. Id.

         When assessing the severity of mental impairments, the ALJ must do so in accordance with the "special technique" described in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(b)-(c), 416.920a(b)-(c). This regulatory scheme identifies four broad functional areas in which the ALJ rates the degree of functional limitation resulting from a claimant's mental impairment(s): activities of daily living; social functioning; concentration, persistence or pace; and episodes of decompensation. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(c)(3), 416.920a(c)(3). The ALJ is required to incorporate into his written decision pertinent findings and conclusions based on the "special technique." 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520a(e)(3), 416.920a(e)(3).

         III. ALJ's Findings

         Plaintiff was 24 years old on the alleged onset date of disability and 32 years old on the date of the 2015 hearing. (R. 27.) Plaintiff has at least a high school education and has no past relevant work. (Id.)

         The ALJ found that Plaintiff met the requirements for insured status under the Social Security Act (“the Act”) through June 30, 2009. (R. 16.) Applying the five-step, sequential evaluation process, the ALJ found Plaintiff “not disabled” as defined in the Act. At step one, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since January 1, 2008, the alleged onset date. (R. 18.) Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “idiopathic gastroparesis; pelvic inflammatory disease; major depressive disorder; anxiety disorder; obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD); obsessive-compulsive personality disorder; borderline intellectual functioning; bipolar disorder.” (Id.) However, at step three, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff's impairments were not severe enough, either individually or in combination, to meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (R. 19-21.) In making this finding, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence or pace. (R. 20.) The ALJ found that Plaintiff's medically determinable impairments could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms; however, the intensity, persistence and limiting effects of these symptoms were not persuasive of disability based on the medical and other evidence in the record. (R. 22.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had the ability to perform light work with the following limitations:

occasionally climb ramps, stairs, ladders, ropes and/or scaffolds, occasionally balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and/or crawl. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to workplace hazards, such as dangerous moving machinery and unprotected heights. She is able to understand and perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks; and maintain concentration, persistence, and pace to stay on task for 2-hour periods over the course of a typical 8-hour workday. The claimant requires a low stress setting, further defined to mean no production-pace or quota-based work, rather a goal-oriented job primarily dealing with things as opposed to people; no more than occasional changes in the work setting. She is limited to no more than occasional social interaction with supervisors, co-workers, and/or members of the public as part of the work. The claimant would not be expected to miss more than 1 day of work per month because of impairments and related symptoms.

(R. 21.)

         At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff has no past relevant work and thus transferability of job skills is not an issue. (R. 27.) At step five, upon considering Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the ALJ determined Plaintiff is capable of adjusting to the demands of other employment ...


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