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Jordan v. Berryhill

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

April 18, 2019

CHERYL RAMSEUR JORDAN, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 12), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 14). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Supplemental Social Security Income and Disability Insurance Benefits. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 12), DENIES Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 14), and REVERSES and REMANDS this matter for further proceedings consistent with this Order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title II benefits on October 25, 2013, and filed an application for Title XVI benefits on March 3, 2014. (Tr. 12). Plaintiff alleges disability beginning September 7, 2013. (Tr. 12). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration, (Tr. 90, 165), Plaintiff requested a hearing, (Tr. 240), which was subsequently held on April 12, 2017. (Tr. 31). Following the hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application for benefits. (Tr. 9). 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 September 7, 2013, and met the insured status requirements through June 30, 2016. (Tr. 14). The ALJ found Plaintiff to be severely impaired by degenerative disc disease, hypertension, tension headaches, pelvic pain status post hysterectomy, manic depression, chronic anxiety, and bi-polar disorder, (Tr. 14), but these impairments did not meet or medically equal one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. (Tr. 15). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”):

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c) and 416.967(c) except the claimant is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive tasks and no more than occasional contact with supervisors.

(Tr. 17). Based on the vocational expert's (“VE”) assessment of these limitations, [1] the ALJ determined Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as an “inspector and hand packager, ” or in the alternative, could perform several other jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 52). As a result, the ALJ concluded Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act from September 7, 2013, through the date of the ALJ's decision. (Tr. 25).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals the ALJ's decision. Plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ's determination of the RFC was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ failed to include the same limitations in the hypothetical to the VE as he adopted in the RFC; (2) the ALJ failed to properly consider Plaintiff's mental limitations in calculation of the RFC; and (3) 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. 13, pp. 6, 9, 20).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         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).

         III. ANALYSIS

         After careful consideration of the record, Parties' briefs, and Plaintiff's assignments of error, the Court finds the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence because the ALJ's hypothetical to the VE did not match Plaintiff's RFC, and the ALJ provided no explanation for the conflict.

         In Walker v. Bowen, 889 F.2d 47, 50 (4th Cir. 1989), the Fourth Circuit held “for a vocational expert's opinion to be relevant or helpful . . . it must be in response to proper hypothetical questions which fairly set out all of claimant's impairments.” In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit held that remand was appropriate when the ALJ gave no explanation ...


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