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Jeffries v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

March 1, 2019

COLLENE JEFFRIES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          L. PATRICK AULD, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff, 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.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff 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.

         In 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 March 2014.
...[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, Appendix 1.
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 this decision.

(Tr. 19-28 (internal parenthetical citations omitted).)

         II. DISCUSSION

         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) . Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the 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, "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).

         "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, 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 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 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).

         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)).[1] "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) .

         This 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) .[2] 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 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, 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.[4]

         B. Assignments of Error

         Plaintiff contends that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding of no disability on these grounds:

         1) "[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 ...


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