United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
VIVIAN C. MITCHELL, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.
D, Whitney, Chief United States District Judge.
MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for
Summary Judgment filed on February 28, 2019, (Doc. No. 10),
and Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment filed on
April 26, 2019. (Doc. No. 12). Plaintiff, through counsel,
seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative
decision on her application for disability benefits, asking
the Court to reverse the decision, or in the alternative a
remand for a new administrative hearing.
reviewed and considered the written arguments, administrative
record, and applicable authority, and for the reasons set
forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is
DENIED; the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment is
GRANTED; and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.
filed a Title II application for disability benefits on
September 14, 2014, alleging disability began July 16, 2014.
(Tr. 13). The claim was initially denied on February 12,
2015, (Tr. 82), and then denied upon reconsideration on
August 20, 2015. (Tr. 105). Plaintiff filed a request for a
hearing on October 15, 2015. (Tr. 110). A video hearing was
held on April 20, 2017 and the Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision on
September 13, 2017. (Tr. 13). Plaintiff's request for
review by an appeals council was denied on July 20, 2018.
determined Plaintiff met the insured status requirements of
the Social Security Act and had not engaged in substantial
gainful activity since the alleged onset date of July 16,
2014. (Tr. 15). The ALJ then found Plaintiff has the
following severe impairments: (1) seizure episodes; (2)
respiratory failure; and (3) affective disorder. (Tr. 15).
The ALJ established Plaintiff does not have an impairment or
combination of impairments that meets or medically equals one
of the listed impairments in 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P,
App. 1. (Tr. 16). The ALJ found Plaintiff has the residual
functional capacity (“RFC”):
to perform medium work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(c)
except she can only occasionally climb ramps and stairs and
can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. The claimant
can frequently handle and finger with her bilateral upper
extremities, she can have occasional exposure to
environmental irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, and
gases, and she cannot use moving machinery or be exposed to
unprotected heights. Additionally, the claimant is limited to
performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks; which she can
perform for two-hour blocks of time, with normal rest breaks,
during an eight-hour workday; and she can handle only
occasional workplace changes.
(Tr. 17-18). The vocational expert (“VE”)
testified Plaintiff would be unable to perform
Plaintiff's past work as a floral arranger, DOT No.
142.081-010, (Tr. 23). Responding to the ALJ's
hypothetical that factored in Plaintiff's age, education,
work experience and RFC, the VE testified there are jobs that
exist in significant numbers in the national economy that an
individual with Plaintiff's limitations could perform.
(Tr. 23). The ALJ subsequently concluded Plaintiff is not
disabled under the Social Security Act. (Tr. 24). Following
denial of Plaintiff's request for review by an appeals
council, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court, invoking
jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). (Doc. No. 1, p.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
order to establish entitlement to [disability] 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) (2012)). The
evidence is evaluated by an ALJ under a “five-step
sequential process” that “ALJs must use in making
disability determinations.” Id. As summarized
in Mascio v. Colvin, the process is:
the ALJ asks at step one whether the claimant has been
working; at step two, whether the claimant's medical
impairments meet the regulations' severity and duration
requirements; at step three, whether the medical impairments
meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations; at
step four, whether the claimant can perform her past work
given the limitations caused by her medical impairments; and
at step five, whether the claimant can perform other work.
780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015). The claimant bears the
burden of “making the requisite showing” at steps
one and two, and if she fails to carry that burden, then
“[she] is determined not to be disabled.”
Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179 (4th Cir. 2016).
The burden remains with the claimant at step three, and
“[she] can establish [her] disability if [she] shows
that [her] impairments match a listed impairment.”
Id.; Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634-35.
“[I]f the claimant fails at [this] step, the ALJ then
must determine the claimant's residual functional
capacity (RFC), Monroe, 826 F.3d at 179,
“which is ‘the most' the claimant ‘can
still do despite' physical and mental limitations that
affect her ability to work.” Mascio, 780 F.3d
at 635 (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 416.945(a)(1)) (emphasis
added); see infra p. 5.
determining the claimant's RFC, the ALJ proceeds to step
four “where the burden rests with the claimant to show
that [she] is not able to perform [her] past work.”
Monroe, 826 F.3d at 180. If successful, she proceeds
to step five where “the burden shifts to the
Commissioner 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.” Mascio, 780 F.3d at 635
(quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 416.920(a)(4)(v),
416.960(c)(2), 416.1429). Typically, the Commissioner offers
evidence “through the testimony of a vocational expert
responding to a hypothetical that incorporates the
claimant's limitations.” Id. “If the
Commissioner meets her burden, the ALJ finds the claimant not
disabled and denies the application for benefits.”
review of a Commissioner's decision to deny social
security benefits is authorized by 42 U.S.C. § 405(g),
and a reviewing court “must uphold the factual findings
of the [Commissioner] if [(1)] they are supported by
substantial evidence and [(2)] were reached through
application of the correct legal standard.” Johnson
v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting
Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cir. 2001)
(internal quotation marks omitted). Substantial evidence is
“such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might
accept as adequate to support a conclusion, ”
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971)
(quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S.
197, 229) (internal quotation marks omitted); consisting
“of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be
somewhat less than a preponderance.” Craig v.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting
Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th
Cir.1966)) (internal quotation marks omitted). A reviewing
Court does not “re-weigh conflicting evidence, make
credibility determinations, or substitute [its] ...