United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
TARA D. ROSS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICK AULD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Tara D. Ross, brought this action under the Social Security
Act (the “Act”) to obtain judicial review of a
final decision of Defendant, the Acting Commissioner of
Social Security, denying Plaintiff's claim for Disability
Insurance Benefits (“DIB”). (Docket Entry 1.) The
Court has before it the certified administrative record
(cited herein as “Tr. ”), as well as the
parties' cross-motions for judgment (Docket Entries 7, 9;
see also Docket Entry 8 (Plaintiff's
Memorandum); Docket Entry 10 (Defendant's Memorandum)).
For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment
filed an application for DIB. (Tr. 139-47.) Upon denial of
that application initially (Tr. 74-77) and on reconsideration
(Tr. 83-86), she requested a hearing de novo before an
Administrative Law Judge (the “ALJ”)
(see Tr. 87-98). Plaintiff, her representative, and
a vocational expert (the “VE”) attended the
hearing. (See Tr. 31-51.) The ALJ subsequently ruled
Plaintiff not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 15-30.) The
Appeals Council denied her request for review (Tr. 1-6),
making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final
decision for purposes of judicial review.
rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the
following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] last met the insured status requirements of
the . . . Act on December 31, 2014.
2. [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity
during the period from her amended onset date of August 4,
2013[, ] through her date last insured of December 31, 2014.
3. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
following severe impairments: depression, bipolar disorder[,
] and obesity.
4. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
5. . . . [T]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
residual functional capacity [(at times, the
“RFC”)] to perform a full range of work at all
exertional levels but with the following nonexertional
limitations: no climbing or work around heights or dangerous
equipment, occasional exposure to people, low stress and
production environment with no rigid quota and simple,
routine and repetitive tasks [(collectively, at times,
6. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] was unable to
perform any past relevant work.
10. Through the date last insured, considering
[Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and [RFC],
there were jobs that existed in significant numbers in the
national economy that [Plaintiff] could have performed.
11. [Plaintiff] was not under a disability, as defined in the
. . . Act, at any time from August 4, 2013, the amended onset
date, through December 31, 2014, the date last insured.
20-27 (bold font and parenthetical citations omitted).)
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 [the Court's] review
of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.”
Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981).
Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under
this extremely limited review standard.
Standard of Review
“[C]ourts are not to try [a Social Security] case de
novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397
(4th Cir. 1974). Instead, the 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.” Hines, 453 F.3d
at 561 (brackets and internal quotation marks 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. 1992) (quoting
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (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)
(brackets and internal 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 [C]ourt should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].”
Mastro, 270 F.3d at 176 (brackets and internal
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
[Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179
(internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before
[the 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).
confronting that issue, the Court must take note that
“[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, 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)). “To regularize the adjudicative
process, the Social Security Administration has . . .
detailed regulations incorporating longstanding
medical-vocational evaluation policies that take into account
a claimant's age, education, and work experience in
addition to [the claimant's] medical condition.”
Id. “These regulations establish a
‘sequential evaluation process' to determine
whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.
sequential evaluation process (the “SEP”) has up
to five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in
‘substantial gainful activity,' i.e.,
currently working; and (2) must have a ‘severe'
impairment that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings'
of specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to
the extent that the claimant does not possess the residual
functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past
work or (5) any other work.” Albright v.
Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2
(4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at any
of several points in the SEP forecloses an award 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 three steps, “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
[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. See id. at 179-80. However, if
the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior
work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, whereupon 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 Commissioner cannot carry her “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
Assignments of Error
asserts that the ALJ erred (1) in his assessment of
Plaintiff's “Mental RFC” (at times, the
“MRFC”) (Docket Entry 8 at 1 (bold font
omitted)), (2) in his “RFC Determination”
(id. (bold font omitted)), and (3) in his evaluation
of “[Plaintiff's] Testimony” (id. at
2 (bold font omitted)). Defendant contends otherwise and
urges that substantial evidence supports the ALJ's
findings. (See Docket Entry 10.)
The Mental RFC
Plaintiff's first assignment of error, she alleges that
“the ALJ d[id] not give a complete function-by-function
analysis of the nonexertional mental functions associated
with [Plaintiff's] difficulties in the broad areas of
functioning and d[id] not make a complete finding as to
[Plaintiff's MRFC]” (Docket Entry 8 at 2-3 (bold
font omitted)), in violation of Mascio v. Colvin,
780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015). (See Docket Entry 8 at
2-8.) In particular, Plaintiff argues that the MRFC fails to
“reflect limitations consistent with the ALJ's
finding of a moderate limitation in concentration,
persistence, and pace” (collectively, at times,
“CPP”). (Id. at 3.) ...