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Hamilton v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 20, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Thomas Lynn Hamilton ("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 o£a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying his 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.


         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on December 27, 2013 and March 9, 2015, respectively, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2013 in both applications. (Tr. at 11, 164-71.)[1] Plaintiffs applications were denied initially (Tr. at 76-85, 104-07) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 86-103, 111-20). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 122-23.) Plaintiff, along with his attorney and an impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing on November 2, 2016. (Tr. at 11.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act from his alleged onset date through February 27, 2017, the date of the administrative decision. (Tr. at 28.) On November 8, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of this decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review. (Tr. at 1-5.)


         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." 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 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 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).

         "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 Or. 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."' IA (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 Or. 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 No. of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite the claimant's impairments." Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In maldng 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.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since August 1, 2013, his alleged onset date. Plaintiff therefore met his burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. (Tr. at 14.) At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

peripheral vascular disease, gastritis, gastrointestinal hemorrhage, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse.

(Id.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 15-17.) The ALJ therefore assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that he could perform sedentary work with the following additional limitations:

[Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to lift and/or carry ten pounds occasionally and less than ten pounds frequently. He can occasionally push and/or pull with the bilateral leg[s]. He can stand and/or walk for up to a total of two hours in an eight-hour workday, and can sit for up to a total of six hours in an eight-hour workday. He can occasionally climb ramps [and] stairs, can never climb ladders, ropes, [or] scaffolds[, ] and can occasionally kneel, crouch, and crawl. He can perform goal-oriented rather than production-oriented work (i.e., the performance of work tasks in allotted time is more important than the pace at which the work tasks are performed). He can perform simple, routine, repetitive work (i.e., requires little or no judgment; requires little specific vocational preparation and can be learned on the jobs within thirty days; does not provide work skills; and has no more than frequent changes in core work duties).

(Tr. at 17.) Based on the RFC determination, the ALJ found at step four of the analysis that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of his past relevant work. (Tr. at 25.) However, the ALJ found at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert as to these factors, he could perform other jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. at 25-27.) Accordingly, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 27-28.)

         Plaintiff, citing Mascio v. Colvin,780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), now raises two challenges to the ALJ's RFC assessment. First, he contends that the ALJ improperly discounted Plaintiffs testimony regarding his physical limitations. Second, he argues that the ALJ failed to properly account for Plaintiffs moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace. ...

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