United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge
Mary Elizabeth Brown ("Plaintiff) brought this action
pursuant to Section 2O5(g) of the Social Security Act (the
"Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to
obtain judicial review of a final decision of the
Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for
Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title
II of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for
judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to
the Court for review.
protectively filed her application for DIB on August 12,
2013, alleging a disability onset date of April 12, 2013.
(Tr. at 21, 184-87.) She later amended her alleged onset date
to August 23, 2014. (Tr. at 21.) Plaintiffs claim was denied
initially (Tr. at 91-105, 122-25), and that determination was
upheld on reconsideration (Tr. at 106-20, 131-34).
Thereafter, she requested an administrative hearing de novo
before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at
135-36.) Plaintiff attended the subsequent hearing on June 7,
2016, along with her attorney and an impartial vocational
expert. (Tr. at 21.) Following the hearing, the ALJ concluded
that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act
(Tr. at 32) and, on August 14, 2017, the Appeals Council
denied Plaintiffs request for review of the decision, thereby
making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final
decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-5).
law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits."
Hines v. Barnhart 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Ck. 2006).
However, "the scope of [the] review of [such an
administrative] decision ... is extremely limited."
Frady v. Harris. 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981).
"The courts are not to try the 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." Hancock v. Astrue. 667 F.3d 470, 472
(4th Cir. 2012) (internal brackets 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. 1993) (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 citations 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 court should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ]." Mastto, 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 ALJ," Hancock. 667 F.3d
at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing court],
therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but
whether the AL'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).
undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that in
administrative proceedings, "[a] claimant for disability
benefits bears the burden of proving a disability."
Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981).
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)).
Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability
claims." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)).
"Under this 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 of equaled the requirements of a listed
impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and
(5) if not, could perform any other work in the national
economy." Id. A finding adverse to the claimant
at any of several points in this five-step sequence
forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. For
example, "[f]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 two steps, and establishes at step three that
the impairment "equals or exceeds in severity one or
more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the
regulations," then "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 function[al]
capacity ('RFC')." Id. at
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.
if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior
work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which
"requires the Commissioner to prove that a significant
number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform,
despite [the claimant's] impairments." Bines, 453
F.3d at 563. In making this determination, 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
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.
present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
"substantial gainful activity" since August 23,
2014, her amended alleged onset date. Plaintiff therefore met
her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process.
At step two, the ALJ further ...