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Scruggs v. Berryhill

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

May 7, 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 Robin Scruggs' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 6) filed November 20, 2018, and Defendant Commissioner of Social Security Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Commissioner”) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 8) filed January 22, 2019. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of a partially unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Title II and Title XVI 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. 6) is DENIED, the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 8) is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits on April 9, 2011, alleging disability beginning October 26, 2009. (Tr. 490). This claim was denied initially and upon reconsideration, and Plaintiff requested a hearing, during which Plaintiff amended her disability onset date to June 24, 2011. (Tr. 490). Plaintiff's claim was denied in an unfavorable April 1, 2013, decision. (Tr. 490). On June 26, 2014, Plaintiff's request for review by the Appeals Council was denied. (Tr. 490). Plaintiff then appealed to this Court, which on May 13, 2015, reversed and remanded the case under section 205(g) of the Social Security Act, instructing the ALJ to include consideration under Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), of the impact Plaintiff's mental limitations had on her ability to function at work for an entire workday. (Tr. 490). The Appeals Council then vacated the ALJ's previous decision and remanded the case to a different ALJ for further proceedings. (Tr. 490). In the interim, Plaintiff filed additional claims for Title II and Title XVI disability benefits on July 23, 2014, which were consolidated into the original file for a new hearing. (Tr. 490). After a hearing on July 22, 2016, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision as to all of Plaintiff's consolidated claims. (Tr. 487). Plaintiff subsequently requested review by the Appeals Council and was granted a partially favorable decision finding Plaintiff disabled as of August 29, 2016. (Tr. 481).

         The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's findings that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 24, 2011, (Tr. 480) and Plaintiff is severely impaired by diabetes mellitus, residuals status fractures and surgery of the left arm, left AC joint osteoarthritis and bursitis, right shoulder bursitis, left knee osteoarthritis, gout, plantar fasciitis, hypertension, obesity, and depression. (Tr. 481-482). The Appeals Council also agreed with the ALJ's determination 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. 482). The Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's 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 sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and 416.967(a) except she is limited to frequent but not constant overhead reaching with the left upper extremity; occasional pushing/pulling with the lower extremities and performing simple, repetitive tasks.

(Tr. 495-496). During the ALJ hearing, in response to a hypothetical that factored in Plaintiff's age, education, work experience, and RFC, the vocational expert (“VE”) testified that although Plaintiff had no past relevant work, Plaintiff could perform the following jobs available in the national economy: “addresser” with 70, 000 jobs, “call out operator” with 80, 000 jobs, and “final assembler” with 65, 000 jobs. (Tr. 502). As a result, the Appeals Council adopted the ALJ's conclusion Plaintiff was not disabled, as defined under the Social Security Act, from June 24, 2011, through August 28, 2016, but did become disabled as of her fiftieth birthday, August 29, 2016. (Tr. 480).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals the decision of the Appeals Council finding Plaintiff was not disabled from June 24, 2011, to August 28, 2016, and requests a remand for purposes of calculating Plaintiff's benefits. (Doc. No. 7, 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, “[i]f the [Commissioner's] dispositive factual findings are supported by substantial evidence, they must be affirmed.” Kellough v. Heckler, 758 F.2d 1147, 1149 (4th Cir. 1986). 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 [Commissioner]. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the [Commissioner].” Id.

         In considering an application for disability benefits, the Commissioner 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 [Commissioner] must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity 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 [Commissioner] must examine “all of [the claimant's] medically determinable impairments of which [the Commissioner 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, [the Commissioner] 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 Commissioner] must then evaluate the ...

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