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Ross v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

February 27, 2019

TARA D. ROSS, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff, 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 for Defendant.


         Plaintiff 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.

         In 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 [low[1] production environment with no rigid quota and simple, routine and repetitive tasks [(collectively, at times, “SRRTs”)].
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.

         (Tr. 20-27 (bold font and parenthetical citations omitted).)


         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 [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.

         A. 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).

         “In 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).

         When 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)).[2] “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.

         This 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).[3] 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).

         On the 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.[4] 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 567.[5]

         B. Assignments of Error

         Plaintiff 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.)

         1. The Mental RFC

         In 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.) ...

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