United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
ELIZABETH PEAKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
Tonya Jolly Landrum ("Plaintiff") brought this
action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act
(the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)),
to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title
II 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 her application for DIB on May 17, 2013,
alleging a disability onset date of October 9, 2009. (Tr. at
9, 238-46.) Her claim was denied initially (Tr. at
119-32, 148-51), and that determination was upheld on
reconsideration (Tr. at 133-47, 153-56). Thereafter,
Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before
an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at
157-58.) Plaintiff, along with her non-attorney
representative and an impartial vocational expert, attended
the subsequent heating on May 24, 2016. (Tr, at 9.) On
September 7, 2016, the ALJ held a supplemental hearing at
which both an impartial medical expert and an impartial
vocational expert testified by telephone. Plaintiffs
non-attorney representative was also present. (Id.)
Hollowing both hearings, the AL] concluded that Plaintiff was
not disabled within the meaning of the Act before December
31, 2014, her date last insured. (Tr. at 22.) On August 18,
2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for
review of that decision, thereby making the ALJ's
conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes
of judicial review (Tr. at 1-5).
law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits."
Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Or. 2006).
However, "the scope of [the] review of [such an
administrative] 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 [underlying the denial of
benefits] 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 brackets omitted).
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 in
administrative proceedings, "[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.'" Id.
(quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).
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
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 each
of the first two steps, and establishes at step three that
the impairment "equals or exceeds in severity one or
more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the
regulations," then "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,
the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual function[al]
capacity ('RFC')." Id. at
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 Commissioner 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" between October 9,
2009, her alleged onset date, and December 31, 2014, her date
last insured. Plaintiff therefore met her burden at step one
of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ
further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following
lumbar degenerative disc disease; carpal tunnel syndrome;
obesity, headaches, hypertension and depression[.]
(Tr. at 11.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these
impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a
disability listing. (Tr. at 11-13.) Therefore, the ALJ
assessed Plaintiffs RFC for the period up to December 31,
2014 as follows:
[She can] perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b)
except [she] can stand and/or walk for no more than four
hours during a standard 8-hour workday. [Plaintiff] can
occasionally climb ramps and stairs. [She] can never climb
ladders, ropes or scaffolds. [She] can frequently balance.
[Plaintiff] can occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch and crawl.
[She] can have no exposure to unprotected heights. [She]
should avoid even moderate exposure to moving mechanical
parts. [Plaintiff] should avoid concentrated exposure to loud
noise, bright light defined as light brighter than standard
office lighting, extreme heat, extreme cold and vibrations.
[She] is further limited to frequent handling, fingering and
feeling bilaterally. [Plaintiff] can frequently push and pull
with the bilateral upper extremities to the same extent she
can lift and/or carry. [She] can frequently reach overhead
bilaterally. [She] can frequently operate foot controls
bilaterally. [Plaintiff] is also limited to simple
work-related instructions and directions. She is limited to
simple routine tasks but not at a production rate pace, e.g.,
assembly line work. [Plaintiff] is capable of ...