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Kline v. Berryhill

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

April 23, 2019

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



         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Ann Marie Kline's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 13) filed on September 25, 2018, Defendant Acting Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 17) filed on December 31, 2018, and Plaintiff's Response (Doc. No. 19) filed on January 9, 2019. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).

         Having reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set forth below, the COURT DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability benefits under Title II on May 17, 2012. (Tr. 11). After her application was denied initially and upon reconsideration (Tr. 11, 168, 175, 176), Plaintiff requested a hearing (Tr. 180). A hearing was held on October 22, 2014. (Tr. 11, 98, 189, 223). On December 12, 2014, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (Tr. 145). On April 15, 2016, the Appeals Council remanded the case to the ALJ. (Tr. 162-66). The ALJ held a new hearing on May 8, 2017. (Tr. 11, 55, 250, 258). Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied on December 8, 2017. (Tr. 1).

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff was not disabled since April 3, 2007. (Tr. 11). The ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date and that she had the severe impairments of degenerative joint disease, status post right shoulder surgert, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and tobacco abuse. (Tr. 14). The ALJ determined that none of these impairments nor any combination of the impairments met or medically equaled a per se disabled medical listing under 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1. (Tr. 15). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff had the Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”):

[T]o perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except frequent balance, stoop, kneel, crouch, and crawl; occasional climbing; frequent exposure to temperature extremes and humidity; and occasional overhead reaching with right upper extremity.

(Tr. 15-16). The vocational expert (“VE”) testified that the Plaintiff was capable of performing past relevant work as a reservations agent. (Tr. 24). In the alternative, in response to a hypothetical that factored in Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the VE testified that an individual with these limitations could perform jobs in the national economy and listed jobs, which work exists in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 24). Thus, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined in the Social Security Act. (Tr. 27).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals. (Doc. No. 1). In Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment, Plaintiff claims that the ALJ's decision should be reversed and remanded because (1) the ALJ improperly rejected new evidence and (2) the ALJ's appointment did not comply with the Appointments Clause. (Doc. No. 14 at 3).


         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. When examining a disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013); Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because “it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 2013).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts do not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” courts defer to the ALJ's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.

         “In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a medically determinable impairment that precludes returning to past relevant work and adjustment to other work.” Flesher v. Berryhill, 697 Fed.Appx. 212 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1520(g)). In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. 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, which is ‘the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations [that affect h[er] ability to work].'” Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861-62 (quoting 20 C.F.R. ยงยง ...

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