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Green v. Berryhill

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

March 25, 2019

JEFFERY D. GREEN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment, (Doc. Nos. 10, 14), and the parties' briefs and exhibits in support. The motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Jeffery D. Green (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of his social security claim. Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) on June 5, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2012. (Doc. Nos. 9 to 9-1: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) 175). His application was denied first on June 21, 2013, (Tr. 120), and upon reconsideration on April 4, 2014. (Tr. 125). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing on May 27, 2014, (Tr. 129), and an administrative hearing was held by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on April 27, 2016. (Tr. 53).

         Following this hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. (Tr. 36-52). Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for a review. (Tr. 1). 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 was disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the SSA. (Tr. 36). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the SSA.[1] Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). Plaintiff alleges that his disability began on June 1, 2012, 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. 47). 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 [his] 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 his 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. 46-47).

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ first concluded at steps one through three that Plaintiff was not employed, that he suffered from severe physical and mental impairments, and that his impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in the Administration's regulations. (Tr. 38-41). Therefore, the ALJ examined the evidence of Plaintiff's impairments and made a finding as to Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ found that Plaintiff

has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except he can only perform handling and fingering frequently bilaterally; he must be allowed to alternate between sitting and standing at 30 minute intervals; he can only occasionally reach overhead bilaterally; he can only occasionally climb ladders or scaffolds; he can only occasionally stoop; he can frequently climb stairs; he can frequently crouch, kneel, and crawl; he should not have concentrated exposure to hazards such as moving machinery or unprotected heights; and he is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks.

(Tr. 41). Having established Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform the work in which he had previously been employed. (Tr. 45). Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth and final step of the process: determining whether, given the limitations embodied in his RFC, Plaintiff could perform any work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 46-47). To make that determination, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”). The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform three representative occupations that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: “information clerk, ”[3] “toll collector, ”[4] and “order caller.”[5] (Tr. 46). According to the DOT, the information-clerk job requires a Reasoning Level of 4, the toll-collector job requires a Reasoning Level of 3, and the order-caller job requires a Reasoning Level of 2. (Tr. 46-47). The ALJ accepted the VE's testimony and concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not prevent him from working; consequently, Plaintiff's application for Title II benefits was denied. (Tr. 47).

         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 SSA. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1382(c).

         The SSA, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) and § 1383(c)(3), limits this Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards, Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990); see also Hunter v. Sullivan, 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cir. 1992) (per curiam). The district court does not review a final decision of the Commissioner de novo. Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); King v. Califano, 599 F.2d 597, 599 (4th Cir. 1979); Blalock v. Richardson, 483 F.2d 773, 775 (4th Cir. 1972). As the SSA provides, “[t]he findings of the [Commissioner] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive.” 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). In Smith v. Heckler, the Fourth Circuit noted that “substantial evidence” has been defined as being “more than a scintilla and [do]ing more than creat[ing] a suspicion of the existence of a fact to be established. It means such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” 782 F.2d 1176, 1179 (4th Cir. 1986) (quoting Perales, 402 U.S. at 401); see also Seacrist v. Weinberger, 538 F.2d 1054, 1056-57 (4th Cir. 1976) (“We note that it is the responsibility of the [Commissioner] and not the courts to reconcile inconsistencies in the medical evidence . . . .”).

         The Fourth Circuit has long emphasized that it is not for a reviewing court to weigh the evidence again, nor to substitute its judgment for that of the Commissioner, assuming the Commissioner's final decision is supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456; see also Smith v. Schweiker, 795 F.2d at 345; Blalock, 483 F.2d at 775. Indeed, this is true even if the reviewing court disagrees with the outcome-so long as there is “substantial evidence” in the record to support the final decision below. Lester v. Schweiker, 683 F.2d 838, 841 (4th Cir. 1982).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff alleges that the ALJ made several errors: (1) the ALJ failed to identify and question the VE about an apparent conflict between the VE's testimony and the DOT; (2) the ALJ failed to sufficiently account for Plaintiff's moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace (“CPP”) in assessing Plaintiff's RFC; (3) the ALJ failed to properly consider Plaintiff's alleged symptom severity and limitations; and (4) the ALJ failed to provide a sufficient narrative discussion of Plaintiff's functional limitations and form a ...


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