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Jackson v. Berryhill

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

March 25, 2019

MARY CATHERINE JACKSON, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendants.

          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. 17, 20); Plaintiff's Motion to Remand, (Doc. No. 11); and the parties' briefs and exhibits in support. The motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Mary Catherine Jackson (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security claim. Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) on July 22, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of February 1, 2014. (Doc. Nos. 9 to 9-1: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 22, 153-56). Her applications were denied first on September 26, 2014, and upon reconsideration on February 23, 2015. (Tr. 22). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing on April 22, 2015, and an administrative hearing was held by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on September 16, 2016. (Id.).

         Following this hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. (Tr. 19-35). Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, but on October 30, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review. (Tr. 1- 3). After having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of Defendant's denial of her social security claim in this Court.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the SSA. (Tr. 22). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the SSA.[1]Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). Plaintiff alleges that her disability began on February 1, 2014, due to a combination of physical and mental impairments.[2]

         After reviewing Plaintiff's record and conducting a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined in the SSA. (Tr. 35). In reaching his conclusion, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration for determining if a person is disabled. The Fourth Circuit has described the five-steps as follows:

[The ALJ] asks whether the claimant: (1) worked during the purported period of disability; (2) has an impairment that is appropriately severe and meets the duration requirement; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment and meets the duration requirement; (4) can return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, can perform any other work in the national economy.

Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 290-91 (4th Cir. 2013) (paraphrasing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant has the burden of production and proof in the first four steps. Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015). However, at the fifth step, the Commissioner must prove that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy despite her limitations. See id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(2) (explaining that the Commissioner has the burden to prove at the fifth step “that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that [the claimant] can do”). In this case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 34-35).

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ first concluded at steps one through three that Plaintiff was not employed, that she suffered from severe physical and mental impairments, and that her impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in the Administration's regulations. (Tr. 24-30). Therefore, the ALJ examined the evidence of Plaintiff's impairments and made a finding as to Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). In pertinent part, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except with occasional posturals; frequent handling with both upper extremities . . . and limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, with ability to perform these tasks for two-hour periods with normal rest breaks in an eight-hour day.

(Tr. 30). Having established Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform the work in which she had previously been employed. (Tr. 33-34). Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth and final step of the process: determining whether, given the limitations embodied in her RFC, Plaintiff could perform any work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 34-35). To make that determination, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”). The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform the following representative jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: “unskilled cashier, ”[3] “sales attendant, ”[4] and “routing clerk.”[5] (Tr. 35). The ALJ accepted the VE's testimony and concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not prevent her from working; consequently, Plaintiff's application for Title II benefits was denied. (Id.).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the final decision of the Commissioner and whether the Commissioner fulfilled her lawful duty in her determination that Plaintiff was not disabled under the ...


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