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Wilson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

April 23, 2019

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


          Joi Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Jessie Roberta Wilson ('"Plaintiff") brought this action pursuant to Section 205(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 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.


         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits in July of 2014, alleging a disability onset date of December 1, 2010. (Tr. at 15, 188-194.)[1] Her application was denied initially (Tr. at 112-120) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 122-129). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 130-131.) Plaintiff, along with her representative and an impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent heating on July 20, 2016. (Tr. at 31.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act from her alleged onset date of December 1, 2010 through December 31, 2015, the date last insured. (Tr. at 26.) On February 28, 2018, 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.)


         Federal law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits." Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, the scope of review of such a 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 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 quotation omitted).

         "Substantial 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 omitted).

         "In 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]." Mastro, 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 ALJ'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 Or. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that "[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)).[2]

         "The 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 or 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, "[t]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 Or. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at the first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets or equals a "listed impairment" at step three, "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," then "the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ('RFC')." Id. at 179.[3] 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. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite [the claimant's] impairments." Hines, 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.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" during the period from her alleged onset date of December 1, 2010 through her date last insured of December 31, 2015. Plaintiff therefore met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorder, and bilateral knee osteoarthritis.

(Tr. at 18.) The ALJ found at step three that these impairments did not meet or equal a disability listing. (Tr. at 19.) Plaintiff does not challenge this listing determination at step three. The ALJ then assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that she:

had the residual functional capacity to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c), except that she should only frequently crouch. The claimant can perform unskilled simple, routine, and repetitive tasks that involve work primarily with things and not people.

(Tr. at 20.) Based on the RFC determination, the ALJ found under step four of the analysis that Plaintiff could not perform her past relevant work. (Tr. at 24.) However, the ALJ determined at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert as to these factors, she could perform other jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. at 25-26.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 26.)

         Plaintiff now argues that the ALJ erred in two respects. First, citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Or. 2015), Plaintiff contends that "[t]he ALJ's mental RFC finding is contrary to law and not supported by substantial evidence, as it is improperly vague and does not account for all the mental limitations documented by the record." (Pl's Br. [Doc. #11] at 10.) Specifically, Plaintiff contends that the RFC fails to encompass both her moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace and her moderate limitations in social functioning. (Id. at 13.) Second, Plaintiff contends that the ALJ's assessment of Plaintiffs subjective complaints is "generally defective" because of the purported Mascio error and more "specifically" because the ALJ "neglected to consider Plaintiffs strong work history in his assessment." (Id. at 18.) The Court considers these contentions in turn.

         A. Moderate Limitations in Concentration, Persistence, or Pace and Social Functioning

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ's determination is not supported by substantial evidence because the RFC "only describes a person limited to simple, routine and repetitive tasks that involve working primarily with things and not people," which Plaintiff contends fails to account for her moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace and her moderate limitations in social functioning. (Pl's Br. at 13.) As to this contention, the Court notes that at step three of the sequential analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff has moderate difficulties in concentration, persistence, or pace and moderate difficulties in social functioning. (Tr. at 20.) In Mascio v. Colvin, the Fourth Circuit noted that where moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, or pace are reflected at step three, the ALJ should address those limitations in assessing the RFC or should explain why the limitations do not affect the claimant's ability to work. Mascio, 780 F.3d 632. The Fourth Circuit specifically held that

[p]erhaps the ALJ can explain why Mascio's moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace at step three does not translate into a limitation in Mascio's residual functional capacity. For example, the ALJ may find that the concentration, persistence, or pace limitation does not affect Mascio's ability to work, in which case it would have been appropriate to exclude it from the hypothetical tendered to the vocational expert. But because the ALJ here gave no explanation, a remand is in order.

Id. (internal citation omitted). However, as previously noted in other cases in this District, the Fourth ...

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