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Whiteside v. Berryhill

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

April 16, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Kaleah Nicole Whiteside's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 9) filed November 6, 2018, and Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) filed January 7, 2019. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits.

         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 (Doc. No. 9) is DENIED, the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11) is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on April 7, 2014. (Tr. 77). Plaintiff alleges disability beginning January 13, 2014. (Tr. 89). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 101, 111), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 119). After a hearing on June 29, 2017 (Tr. 31), the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 12). Plaintiff's subsequent request for review by the Appeals Council was denied. (Tr. 1).

         The ALJ found Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since January 13, 2014, and meets the insured status requirements through December 31, 2019. (Tr. 17). The ALJ found Plaintiff to be severely impaired by affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and schizophrenia. (Tr. 17). 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 P, App. 1. (Tr. 18). The ALJ then made the following finding of Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform a full range of work at all exertional levels but with the following nonexertional limitations: The claimant could perform simple, routine, and repetitive tasks. She would have time off-task that would be accommodated by normal breaks. She could have occasional interactions with supervisors, co-workers, and the general public. She could tolerate few changes in a routine work setting.

(Tr. 19). 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 her past relevant work as an Electrical Assembler. The VE opined Plaintiff could also perform other jobs available in the national economy: “Office Helper” with approximately 116, 000 jobs nationally, “Routing Clerk” with approximately 41, 600 jobs nationally, and “Shipping-and-Receiving Weigher” with approximately 85, 000 jobs nationally. (Tr. 24-25). As a result, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act, from January 13, 2014, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 26).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ did not properly consider Plaintiff's vocational limitations caused by her poor mental health, and (2) the ALJ was improperly appointed in violation of the Appointments Clause because of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Lucia v. SEC, 138 S.Ct. 2044 (2018). (Doc. No. 10 at 15, 18, 24).


         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code permits judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. When reviewing a Social Security disability determination, a reviewing court must “uphold the determination when an [ALJ] has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). It “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the Court does “not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id. (citation omitted).

         In considering an application for disability benefits, an ALJ uses a five-step sequential process to evaluate the disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). 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 Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015)); 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.” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861. The RFC equates to “the most” the claimant “can still do despite” physical and mental limitations that affect her ability to work. Id. § 416.945(a)(1); § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv).

When assessing the claimant's RFC, the ALJ must examine “all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the ALJ is] aware, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1525(a)(2), 416.925(a)(2), “including those not labeled severe at step two.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. In addition, he must “consider all [the claimant's] symptoms, including pain, and the extent to which [her] symptoms can reasonably be accepted as consistent with the objective medical evidence and other evidence, ” 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1529(a), 416.929(a). “When the medical signs or laboratory findings show that [the claimant has] a medically determinable impairment(s) that could reasonably be expected to produce [her] symptoms, such as pain, [the ALJ] must then evaluate ...

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