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Howell v. Berryhill

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

March 21, 2019

JOHNATHAN KEVIN HOWELL, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner for Social Security Administration Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr., United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment, (Doc. Nos. 9, 14); Plaintiff's Motion for Remand, (Doc. No. 17), and the parties' briefs and exhibits in support. The motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         On February 16, 2009, at the age of twenty-two, Johnathan Kevin Howell (“Plaintiff”) was found to be disabled as of August 23, 2008 and was awarded disability insurance benefits. (Doc. No. 6-1: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 74). Subsequently, the Social Security Administration determined that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of August 1, 2015. Plaintiff appealed this finding and, after a hearing, an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) determined that Plaintiff experienced medical improvement such that he no longer qualified as disabled. (Tr. 11-22). The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review of this decision. (Tr. 1-5). After having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of Defendant's denial of his social security claim in this Court.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff's disability had ended under Section 223(f) of the Social Security Act (“SSA”). (Tr. 11). To qualify for disability benefits, a claimant must show that he is unable 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. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1). In a typical social security case, when the issue is whether a claimant is disabled and should therefore be granted Social Security benefits in the first place, an ALJ applies a five-step sequential evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920 (2018). “Once a claimant has been found disabled under the [SSA], a presumption of continuing disability arises.” Sykes v. Colvin, No. 5:15-CV-00228-RN, 2016 WL 3129174, at *2 (E.D. N.C. June 2, 2016) (citing Bellamy v. Sec'y of Health & Human Servs., 755 F.2d 1380, 1381 (9th Cir. 1985)). The Commissioner may not terminate benefits unless substantial evidence demonstrates sufficient medical improvement in a claimant's impairments such that the claimant is able to engage in substantial gainful activity. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 1382c(a)(4)(A), 423(f); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594, 416.994 (2017). To determine if Plaintiff continues to be disabled, the ALJ must follow an eight-step evaluation process. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1594.

         After reviewing Plaintiff's record and conducting a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was no longer disabled as of August 1, 2015. (Tr. 22). In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ used the eight-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration for determining if a claimant continues to be disabled. The eight steps are as follows:

(1) Is the claimant presently engaged in substantial gainful activity? If so, and any applicable trial work period has been completed, the claimant's disability ends. If not, proceed to step two.
(2) Does the claimant have an impairment, or combination of impairments, which meets or equals an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1? If so, the claimant's disability continues. If not, proceed to step three.
(3) Has there been medical improvement as shown by a decrease in the medical severity of the impairment(s) present at the time of the CPD[1]? If so, proceed to step four. If not, proceed to step five.
(4) Was any medical improvement related to the ability to work (i.e., has there been an increase in the claimant's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”))? If so, proceed to step six. If not, proceed to step five.
(5) Is there an exception to medical improvement? If not, the claimant's disability continues. If an exception from the first group of exceptions to medical improvement applies (i.e., substantial evidence shows that the claimant has benefited from “advances in medical or vocational therapy or technology” or “undergone vocational therapy” if either is “related to [the] ability to work”), see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(d) & 416.994(b)(3), proceed to step six. If an exception from the second group applies (i.e., disability determination was fraudulently obtained, claimant was uncooperative, unable to be found, or failed to follow prescribed treatment, see 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1594(e) & 416.994(b)(4), the claimant's disability ends.
(6) Is the claimant's current combination of impairments severe? If so, proceed to step seven. If not, the claimant's disability ends.
(7) Does the claimant possess the [RFC] to perform claimant's past relevant work? If so, the claimant's disability ends. If not, proceed to step eight.
(8) Does the claimant's [RFC], when considered with the claimant's age, education, and work experience, allow the claimant to do other work? If so, the claimant's disability ends. If ...

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