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Conley v. Berryhill

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

April 24, 2019

MARY CONLEY, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Graham C. Mullen, United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 9) and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 11). Having carefully considered such motions and reviewed the pleadings, the court enters the following findings, conclusions, and Order.


         I. Administrative History

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title II benefits on August 27, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of March 19, 2015. Plaintiff's claims were denied both initially and on reconsideration. Thereafter, Plaintiff requested and was granted a hearing before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). After conducting a hearing, the ALJ issued a decision finding Plaintiff not disabled. The Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“Commissioner”). Thereafter, Plaintiff timely filed this action, seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision.

         II. Factual Background

         In his decision, the ALJ first determined that Plaintiff has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since her alleged onset date (Tr. 40). At the second step, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff has the following severe impairments: previous stroke on the left side with mild cognitive deficits, restless leg syndrome, and headaches. Id.

         At the third step, the ALJ found that the Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 42). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff has residual functional capacity (RFC) to perform the full range of light work. Id. As a result, the ALJ found in the fourth step that Plaintiff is capable of performing her past relevant work as a deli clerk. (Tr. 46). Accordingly, the ALJ found that Plaintiff is not disabled under the Act.

         III. Standard of Review

         The only issues on review are whether the Commissioner applied the correct legal standards and whether the Commissioner's decision is supported by substantial evidence. Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971); Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990). Review by a federal court is not de novo, Smith v. Schwieker, 795 F.2d 343, 345 (4th Cir. 1986); rather, inquiry is limited to whether there was “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ” Richardson, 402 U.S. at 400. Even if the undersigned were to find that a preponderance of the evidence weighed against the Commissioner's decision, the Commissioner's decision would have to be affirmed if supported by substantial evidence. Hays, 907 F.2d at 1456.

         IV. Discussion

         Plaintiff raises five challenges to the ALJ's decision: (1) that the SSA erred by failing to evaluate and accord substantial weight to a favorable Medicaid decision as required by Woods v. Berryhill, 888 F.3d 686 (4th Cir. 2018); (2) that the SSA erred by failing to evaluate and assign weight to the medical opinion of Dr. Bertron Haywood; (3) that the Plaintiff's past work was improperly classified in the ALJ's decision; (4) that the ALJ erred by failing to explain why no mental limitations were placed in the RFC; and (5) that the ALJ's appointment did not comply with the Appointments Clause at the time of his decision.

         Shortly before Plaintiff applied for SSA disability benefits, she applied for Medicaid. On July 17, 2015, her application was approved. Plaintiff was found to be under a disability since March of 2015 due to cerebral degeneration via SSA grid rule 202.07. The case analysis underlying the decision discussed her white matter disease with moderate chronic microvascular changes, her episodes of weakness and numbness, cognitive slowing and memory issues and abnormal gait and impaired balance on exam. She was found to be limited to a reduced range of light work with avoidance of heights and hazards, occasional balancing and occasional climbing. Her past relevant work was classified as a medium cook/deli clerk position and two composite jobs of cashier/checker and salesperson/master grill operator which both had higher exertion levels of medium. Disability Determination Services (“DDS”) concluded that her skills were not transferable from these medium jobs to a light or lower level of exertion; therefore, she was disabled pursuant to grid rule 202.07.

         The ALJ did not consider this decision at all. Even though it was in the possession of DDS, SSA did not place it in the file before the ALJ. With her request for review from the Appeals Council (“AC”), Plaintiff brought the Medicaid decision to SSA's attention, but the AC did not accord the decision substantial weight. Neither did the AC remand the claim to the ALJ for evaluation of this evidence, instead only stating without ...

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