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Mitchell v. Berryhill

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

June 21, 2019

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


          Frank D, Whitney, Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS 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.

         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 is DENIED; the Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED; and the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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. (Tr. 1).

         The ALJ 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. 1).


         “In 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.

         After 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.” Id.

         Judicial 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] ...

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