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Arnold v. Berryhill

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

June 12, 2019

ROGER D. ARNOLD, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND RECOMMENDATION

          W. CARLETON METCALF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment (Docs. 11, 13). The Motions have been referred to the undersigned pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B). The issues have been fully briefed, and the matter is now ripe for ruling. Following a review of the record, the parties' filings, and relevant legal authority, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment be granted and that the Commissioner's motion for summary judgment be denied.

         I. Procedural History

         On November 21, 2013, Plaintiff filed an application for supplemental security income. (Transcript of Administrative Record (“T.”) 20.) Plaintiff alleged disability since January 1, 2012 but later amended his alleged onset date to December 18, 2014. (T. 20.)

         The claim was denied initially on April 24, 2014, and upon reconsideration on April 21, 2015. (T. 20.)

         On June 18, 2015, Plaintiff filed a written request for a hearing. (T. 20.)

         A video hearing was conducted on May 11, 2017. (T. 20.) Plaintiff appeared in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) John M. Dowling presided over the hearing from St. Louis, Missouri. (T. 20.) Vocational Expert (“VE”) Barry J. Brown also appeared at the hearing. (T. 20.) At the time, Plaintiff was represented by Lynne Sizemore, a non-attorney representative. (T. 20.)

         On June 16, 2017, the ALJ issued an unfavorable decision. (T. 20-32.) On the same day, Plaintiff requested review of the ALJ's decision. See (T. 1). Plaintiff's request was denied on May 18, 2018. (T. 1-3.)

         On July 17, 2018, Plaintiff filed the instant action seeking review of the Commissioner's final decision. See (Doc. 1).

         II. Standard for Determining Disability

         An individual is disabled for purposes of receiving disability payments if he or she is unable 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.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A); accord Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001). The Commissioner undertakes a five-step inquiry to determine whether a claimant is disabled. Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam). Under the five-step sequential evaluation, the Commissioner must consider each of the following, in sequence: (1) whether the claimant has engaged in substantial gainful employment; (2) whether the claimant has a severe impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment is sufficiently severe to meet or exceed the severity of one or more of the listing of impairments contained in Appendix I of 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P; (4) whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work; and (5) whether the claimant is able to perform any other work considering his or her age, education, and residual functional capacity (“RFC”). 20 C.F.R. § 416.920; Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177; Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 n.1.

         At the first two steps of the sequential evaluation, the burden is on the claimant to make the requisite showing. Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016). If a claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at either of these first two steps, the ALJ will determine that the claimant is not disabled, and the process comes to an end. Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634-35 (4th Cir. 2015). The burden remains on the claimant at step three to demonstrate that the claimant's impairments satisfy a listed impairment and, thereby, establish disability. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179.

         If the claimant fails to satisfy his or her burden at step three, however, then the ALJ must still determine the claimant's RFC. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635. After determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step four in order to determine whether the claimant can perform his or her past relevant work. Id. The burden is on the claimant to demonstrate that he or she is unable to perform past work. Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the ALJ determines that a claimant is not capable of performing past work, then the ALJ proceeds to step five. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635.

         At step five, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant can perform other work. Id. The burden rests with the Commissioner at step five to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the claimant can perform other work that exists in significant numbers in the national economy, considering the claimant's RFC, age, education, and work experience. Id.; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. Typically, the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five with the testimony of a VE, who offers testimony in response to a hypothetical question from the ALJ that incorporates the claimant's limitations. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If the Commissioner satisfies her burden at step five, then the ALJ will find that the claimant is not disabled and deny the application for disability benefits. Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635; Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180.

         III. The ALJ's Decision

         In his June 16, 2017 decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under section 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (T. 20-32.) In support of this conclusion, the ALJ made the following specific findings:

(1) The claimant has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since November 21, 2013, the application date (20 C.F.R. § 416.971 et seq.).
(2) The claimant has the following severe impairments: diabetes mellitus, hypertension, obesity, a learning disorder, depression and anxiety (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c)).
(3) The claimant does not have an impairment or combination of impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of one of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1 (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(d), 416.925, and 416.926).
(4) The claimant has the RFC to perform medium work as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.967(c), except he can frequently climb ramps and stairs, but can only occasionally climb ladders, ropes, and scaffolds. The claimant can perform simple, routine tasks with only occasional interaction with co-workers and the public.[1]
(5) The claimant is capable of performing past relevant work as a doffer. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by the claimant's RFC (20 C.F.R. § 416.965).
(6) In the alternative, considering the claimant's age, education, work experience, and RFC, there are other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy that the claimant can perform (20 C.F.R. §§ 416.969, 416.969(a)).[2]
(7) The claimant has not been under a disability, as defined in the Social Security Act, since November 21, 2013, the date the application was filed (20 C.F.R. § 416.920(f)).

(T. 20-32.)

         IV. Standard of Review

         Title 42, United States Code, Section 405(g) provides that a plaintiff may file an action in federal court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. Hines v. Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). The scope of judicial review is limited in that the district court “must uphold the factual findings of the Secretary if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996); accord Monroe, 826 F.3d at 186. “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (internal quotation marks omitted). It is more than a scintilla but less than a preponderance of evidence. Id.

         When a federal district court reviews the Commissioner's decision, it does not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the Secretary.” Id. Accordingly, the issue before the Court is not whether Plaintiff is disabled but, rather, whether the Commissioner's decision that he is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence in the record, and whether the ALJ reached his decision based on the correct application of the law. Id.

         V. Analysis

         A. The ALJ evaluated Plaintiff's symptoms properly.

         Plaintiff argues that the ALJ's reasons for finding that his symptoms were less severe than alleged are not supported by substantial evidence. Pl.'s Mem. (Doc. 12) at 19-20.

         Under the regulations, “the determination of whether a person is disabled by pain or other symptoms is a two-step process.” Craig, 76 F.3d at 594; accord Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 865-66 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(b)-(c)[3]). In the first step, the ALJ must determine that objective medical evidence is present to demonstrate that a claimant has a medical impairment that could reasonably be expected to produce the symptoms alleged. 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(b).

         Under the second step, the ALJ must evaluate the intensity and persistence of the claimant's symptoms in order to determine the extent to which they affect his ability to work. Id. § 416.929(c). In doing so, the ALJ must evaluate the claimant's statements regarding his symptoms and their effects on his ability to perform work activities. Id. § 416.929(c)(4). When the ALJ finds the claimant's statements to be less than fully credible, he must support this conclusion by identifying those statements and explaining “how he decided which . . . to believe and which to discredit.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 640.

         Social Security Ruling (“SSR”) 16-3p eliminated the term “credibility” because the regulations do not use that term.[4] 2016 WL 1119029, at * 1. The intent of this change was to clarify that a subjective symptoms evaluation is not meant to be an examination of a claimant's character. Id. Consistent with the regulations, ALJs are directed to consider all the evidence found in an individual's record when evaluating the intensity and persistence of symptoms. Id. at *2.

         The following factors from 20 C.F.R. § 416.929(c)(3) are considered when evaluating intensity, persistence, and limiting effects of an individual's symptoms:

(1) Daily activities;
(2) The location, duration, frequency, and intensity of pain or other symptoms;
(3) Factors that precipitate and aggravate the symptoms;
(4) The type dosage, effectiveness, and side effects of any medication an individual takes or has taken to alleviate pain or other symptoms;
(5) Treatment, other than medication, an individual receives or has received for relief of pain or other symptoms;
(6) Any measures other than treatment used to relieve pain or other symptoms; and
(7) Any other factors concerning an individual's functional limitations and restrictions caused by pain ...

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