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Kiser v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Charlotte Division

March 13, 2019

HAROLD L. KISER, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Harold L. Kiser's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13), filed May 21, 2018, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 15), filed July 6, 2018. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Supplemental Social Security Income (“SSI”) and Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED; the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED; and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff originally filed a Title XVI application for supplemental security income on December 23, 2009, which was subsequently denied. (Tr. 34). This previous claim was denied by ALJ Wendell Sims on December 1, 2011, becoming the final decision when the Appeals Council denied request for review on October 26, 2012. (Tr. 34). Thereafter, Plaintiff was found eligible for Medicaid benefits on August 14, 2013, receiving a rating of “disabled” under Medicaid eligibility rules. (Tr. 48).

         Plaintiff subsequently filed an application for Title II and Title XVI benefits on December 12, 2012 (Tr. 34). Plaintiff alleges disability beginning July 21, 2009 (Tr. 34). After his application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 34). After a hearing on September 8, 2014, (Tr. 34), the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision (Tr. 31). Plaintiff's subsequent request for review by the Appeals Council was denied. (Tr. 1). Plaintiff now appeals this decision to this Court.

         In the case at bar, the ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since July 21, 2009 and met the insured status requirements through December 31, 2018. (Tr. 37). The ALJ found Plaintiff to have the following severe impairments: “prostate cancer, urinary tract disorder, degenerative disc disease, and organic mental disorder (20 CFR 404.1520(c) and 416.920(c))[.]” (Tr. 38). The ALJ determined Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart B, App. 1. (Tr. 40). The ALJ then found Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”) to perform sedentary work as defined in 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1567(a), 416.967(a), with the following additional limitations:

The claimant requires a cane for ambulation. The claimant occasionally can climb ramps and stairs, balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl. The claimant cannot climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. The claimant must avoid concentrated exposure to unprotected heights, moving mechanical parts, extreme heat, extreme cold, humidity, dust, odors, fumes, and pulmonary irritants. The claimant cannot operate motorized equipment as part of his job. The claimant can perform work involving simple, routine, and repetitive tasks and making simple, work-related decisions. The claimant can tolerate only simple changes in the work setting. The claimant can have occasional interaction with co-workers, and no interaction with the public.

(Tr. 42). In response to a hypothetical that factored in Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the vocational expert (“VE”) testified that Plaintiff could perform his past relevant work as a document preparer/scanner, final assembler, and addresser, in addition to others' jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 50). As a result, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act, from July 21, 2009, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 50). Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).


         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. When examining a disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013); Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because “it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 2013).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). We do not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” we defer to the ALJ's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.

         “In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a medically determinable impairment that precludes returning to past relevant work and adjustment to other work.” Flesher v. Berryhill, 697 Fed.Appx. 212 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1520(g)). In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Pursuant to this five-step 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 severity of a listed impairment; (4) could return to his past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy. Id.; see also Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861; Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016).

         “If the claimant fails to demonstrate she has a disability that meets or medically equals a listed impairment at step three, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four, which is ‘the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations [that affect h[er] ability to work].'” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861-62 (quoting 20 C.F.R. ยงยง ...

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