United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge.
Angela Soremkun ('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
and Supplemental Security Income 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.
protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance
Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on August
2, 2013 and August 1, 2013, respectively, alleging a
disability onset date of July 1, 2012 in both applications.
(Tr. at 12, 253-61. She later amended her alleged onset date
to August 5, 2013. (Tr. at 12, 266.) Plaintiffs applications
were denied initially (Tr. at 88-125, 171-81) and upon
reconsideration (Tr. at 126-63, 184-201). Thereafter,
Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before
an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 202.)
On April 22, 2016, Plaintiff, along with her attorney and an
impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing.
(Tr. at 12.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was
not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 27), and,
on July 13, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff s
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.)
law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits."
Hines v. Bamhart 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." Oppenheim 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
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
more 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).
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 Or. 1996).
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."' Id., (quoting 42 U.S.C. §
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."
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).
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. 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 No. 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.
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 14.) At step two, the ALJ further ...