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Murphy v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 13, 2019

AMY MURPHY, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Amy Murphy ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security-denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under, respectively, Titles II and XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for DIB and SSI on August 14, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 30, 2013 in both applications. (Tr. at 21, 230-32.)[1] Her applications were denied initially (Tr. at 76-103, 140-51) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 104-35, 156-73). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 174-77.) On November 15, 2016, Plaintiff, along with her attorney, attended the subsequent hearing, during which an impartial vocational expert testified by telephone. (Tr. at 21.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 31), and, on October 23, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-6).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits." Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, the scope of review of such a decision is "extremely limited." Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "The courts are not to try the case de novo." Qppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir. 1974). Instead, "a reviewing court must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation omitted).

         "Substantial evidence means 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It consists of mote than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence." Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         "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 [ALJ]," Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981). In this context, "disability" means the "'inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.'" Li (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[2]

         "The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)). "Under this 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 requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy." Id,

         A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. For example, "[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in 'substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is 'severely' disabled. If not, benefits are denied." Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Cir. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at the first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets or equals a "listed impairment" at step three, "the claimant is disabled." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., "[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment," then "the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ('RFC')." Id, at 179.[3] Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can "perform past relevant work"; if so, the claimant does not qualify as disabled. Id, at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite the claimant's impairments." Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, the ALJ must decide "whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job." Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the Government cannot carry its "evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community," the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since her alleged onset date. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. (Tr. at 23.) At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

degenerative disc disease with post laminectomy syndrome, degenerative joint disease, obesity, [and] depression[.]

(Id.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 24-25.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that she could perform sedentary work with further limitations. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

can lift and carry up to 10 lbs. She can stand and walk up to 2 hours and can sit for up to six hours but would require a sit stand option at will while remaining on task and would require the assistance of a hand held device while ambulating. She could only occasionally reach overhead but could frequently reach in all other directions and frequently handle, finger and feel. [Plaintiff] could never climb ladders, rope or scaffolds [or] crawl, and could have no concentrated exposure to workplace hazards. She could occasionally use ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel and crouch. [Plaintiff] could only occasionally use a motor vehicle. She would be limited to simple, routine tasks.

(Tr. at 25.) Based on this determination, the ALJ found under step four of the analysis that Plaintiff could not perform any of her past relevant work. (Tr. at 30.) However, the ALJ concluded at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, and RFC, along with the testimony of the vocational expert regarding those factors, Plaintiff could perform other jobs available in the national economy and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. at 30-31.)

         Plaintiff now raises two challenges to the ALJ's RFC determination. First, she contends the ALJ failed to properly weigh the opinion of Dr. David Jones, Plaintiffs treating neurosurgeon. As part of this argument, Plaintiff also contends that the ALJ failed to fully account for her need for a handheld assistive device. In her second, related claim, Plaintiff asserts that the ALJ failed to properly evaluate her subjective symptoms in accordance with Social Security Ruling ...


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