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Piatz v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

January 22, 2019

DAWN M. PIATZ, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         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. Dawn M. Piatz (“Plaintiff”) filed this pro se action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) seeking judicial review of the denial of her applications for a period of disability, Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”), and Supplemental 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 parties' filings, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #21] be denied, Defendant's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings [DE #22] be granted, and the Commissioner's decision be affirmed.


         Plaintiff filed applications for SSI and DIB on January 30, 2012, which were denied on August 29, 2012. (R. 92-97.) Plaintiff subsequently filed new applications for SSI on May 3, 2013, and for a period of disability and DIB on January 8, 2014, alleging disability beginning December 22, 2011. (R. 78, 79, 80, 86.) The applications were denied initially and upon reconsideration, and a request for hearing was filed. (R. 78-79, 80-90, 100-07, 116-18.) On June 7, 2016, a video hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Roseanne M. Dummer (“ALJ”), at which Plaintiff appeared and was represented by counsel. (R. 40.) The ALJ issued an unfavorable ruling on June 17, 2016. (R. 22-34.)

         Plaintiff sought review by the Appeals Council and submitted a Mental Residual Functional Capacity Questionnaire completed by her nurse practitioner Kristine Bailey on June 23, 2016. (R. 71-77.) On September 29, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner. (R. 1-3.) The Appeals Council did not consider the questionnaire completed by Ms. Bailey, stating the “evidence does not show a reasonable probability that it would change the outcome of the decision.”[1] (R. 2.) Plaintiff, now proceeding pro se, seeks judicial review of the final administrative decision pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         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). These four broad functional areas also correspond to the “paragraph B” criteria of many of the mental disorders in the Listing of Impairments that may be considered at step three of the sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. The ALJ is required to incorporate into the 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

         As a preliminary matter, the ALJ found that the Commissioner's August 29, 2012, decision denying Plaintiff's prior applications was final and binding, no basis to reopen the prior determination having been shown. (R. 22.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiff met the requirements for insured status under the Social Security Act (“the Act”) through December 31, 2018. (R. 24.) As a consequence, the ALJ considered Plaintiff's applications as to the period from August 30, 2012, to the date of the ALJ's decision on June 17, 2016. (R. 22, 33-34.)

         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 engaged in substantial gainful employment since August 30, 2012, but continued with the five-step evaluation process because the ALJ found there were periods during which she was not employed at a substantial gainful activity level. (R. 24.)

         Next, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: “history of polysubstance abuse in reported remission; depression, NOS;[2] and opioid dependence.” (R. 25.) The ALJ identified the following non-severe impairments: facial reconstruction surgery, history of cervical cancer and ovarian cancer, status post partial hysterectomy and left oophorectomy, bowel problems, left knee pain, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (Id.) At step three, the ALJ concluded that 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, App. 1. (Id.)

         Prior to proceeding to step four, the ALJ assessed Plaintiff's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and found that Plaintiff had

the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: the claimant could understand, remember, and carry out instructions; she could sustain attention for simple tasks for extended periods of two-hour segments in an eight hour day; she could tolerate brief and superficial contact with others; and she could adapt as needed for simple, routine, repetitive-type, unskilled work.

(R. 26.) In making this assessment, the ALJ found Plaintiff's statements concerning the intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of her symptoms “less than fully consistent with the evidence.” (R. 31.)

         At step four, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work as a shirt inspector. (Id.) Notwithstanding the determination that Plaintiff is capable of performing past relevant work, the ALJ proceeded to step five of the evaluation process. At step five, the ALJ determined that other jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, including hand packager, dry cleaning aide, price marker, mailroom clerk (nonpostal), small parts assembler, garment folder, and garment bagger. (R. 32.)

         IV. ...

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