United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICK AULD, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Collene Jeffries, brought this action pursuant to 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 2.)
Defendant has filed the certified administrative record
(Docket Entry 9 (cited herein as "Tr. ")), and both
parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 12, 14;
see also Docket Entry 13 (Plaintiff's
Memorandum); Docket Entry 15 (Defendant's Memorandum);
Docket Entry 16 (Plaintiff s Reply)) . For the reasons that
follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of November
12, 2013. (Tr. 184-95.) Upon denial of that application
initially (Tr. 59-67, 105-13) and on reconsideration (Tr.
68-100, 117-24), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before
an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. 125) .
Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert
("VE") attended the hearing. (Tr. 34-58.) Following
the hearing, Plaintiff's representative filed a
Post-Hearing Memorandum of Law and Objections to the
Vocational Witness' Testimony ("Post-Hearing
Objections") with the ALJ. (Tr. 274-312.) The ALJ
subsequently overruled Plaintiff's objections to the
VE's testimony (see Tr. 16-17), and determined that
Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act (Tr.
13-29) . The Appeals Council thereafter denied
Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-6, 179-81, 314-15),
thereby making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's
final decision for purposes of judicial review.
rendering that decision, the ALJ made the following findings:
1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the .
. . Act through December 31, 2018.
2. [Plaintiff] has engaged in substantial gainful activity
during the following periods: from December 2013 through
...[E]ven if [Plaintiff] had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity during this period, she would still be found
not disabled for the entire period at issue ....
3. [T]here has been a continuous 12-month period(s) during
which [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful
activity. The remaining findings address the period (s)
[Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful activity.
4. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease, migraine headaches, affective
disorder, and anxiety disorder.
5. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
6. ... [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to
perform medium work . . . except [she] can occasionally climb
ramps or stairs, but never climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds. She can occasionally balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch, or crawl. She can tolerate no greater than occasional
exposure to unprotected heights or moving mechanical parts.
[Plaintiff] is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks,
but not at a production rate pace (e.g., assembly line work)
. She is further limited to simple, work-related decisions.
She can have occasional contact with supervisors, coworkers,
but no contact with the general public.
7. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work.
11. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant No. in the national economy that
[Plaintiff] can perform.
12. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined
in the . . . Act, from November 12, 2013, through the date of
(Tr. 19-28 (internal 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 . . . 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 the extremely
limited review standard.
Standard of Review
are not to try [a Social Security] 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." Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal
brackets and quotation marks 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. 1992) (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 brackets 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
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 Social Security Commissioner] ."
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
[Social Security 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 [(,
SSA')] has . . . promulgated . . . 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. (internal citations omitted) .
sequential evaluation process ("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
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, whereupon the ALJ
must decide "whether the claimant is able to perform
other work considering both [the 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.
Assignments of Error
contends that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding
of no disability on these grounds:
"[t]he ALJ erred in relying on [VE] testimony to fulfill
[the ALJ's] step 5 burden without properly addressing
[Plaintiff's] [P]ost-[H]earing [O]bjections to the
[VE's] testimony" (Docket Entry 13 at 3