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Price v. Commissioner of Social Security

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

June 30, 2019



          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment, (Doc. Nos. 10, 12); and the parties' associated briefs and exhibits. The motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         James Lee Price (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of the Commissioner of Social Security's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security claim. Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance Benefits under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) on August 28, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of March 1, 2010. (Doc. No. 8 to 8-1: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) 14). His application was denied first on March 13, 2014 and upon reconsideration on April 14, 2015. (Tr. 14). Plaintiff filed a timely request for a hearing on May 22, 2015, and an administrative hearing was held by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on March 27, 2017. (Tr. 14).

         Following this hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. (Tr. 14-23). Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, but the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 14). After having exhausted his administrative remedies, Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of Defendant's denial of his social security claim in this Court.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the SSA. (Tr. 14). To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that he was disabled within the meaning of the SSA.[1] Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). Plaintiff alleges that his disability began on March 1, 2010 due to chronic neck, back, and shoulder pain stemming from left shoulder tears and degenerative disk disease. (Tr. 15-17).

         After reviewing Plaintiff's record and conducting a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined in the SSA. (Tr. 14). In reaching her conclusion, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration for determining if a person is disabled. The Fourth Circuit has described the five steps as follows:

[The ALJ] asks whether the claimant: (1) worked during the purported period of disability; (2) has an impairment that is appropriately severe and meets the duration requirement; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment and meets the duration requirement; (4) can return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, can perform any other work in the national economy.

Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 290-91 (4th Cir. 2013) (paraphrasing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant has the burden of production and proof in the first four steps. Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015). However, at the fifth step, the Commissioner must prove that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy despite his limitations. See id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(2) (explaining that the Commissioner has the burden to prove at the fifth step “that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that [the claimant] can do”). In this case, the ALJ determined at the fifth step that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 22-23).

         In reaching her decision, the ALJ first concluded at steps one through three that Plaintiff was not employed, that he suffered from severe physical impairments, [2] and that his impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in the Administration's regulations. (Tr. 16-17). Therefore, the ALJ examined the evidence of Plaintiff's impairments and made a finding as to Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). The ALJ found that Plaintiff has:

the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except the claimant can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds, but can frequently climb ramps and stairs.
He can frequently balance, stoop, crouch, kneel, crawl, and reach overhead bilaterally. The claimant can never be exposed to dangerous machinery or unprotected heights, but can occasionally be exposed to dust, fumes, gases, odors, and pulmonary irritants.”

(Tr. 17).

         Having established Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could not perform the work in which he had previously been employed. (Tr. 21). Therefore, the ALJ proceeded to the fifth and final step of the process: determining whether, given the limitations embodied in his RFC, Plaintiff could perform any work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 21-22). To make that determination, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”). The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform three representative occupations that exist in significant numbers in the national economy: “electronics worker, ”[3] “inspector and hand packager, ”[4] and “shipping and receiving weigher.”[5] (Tr. 22). All of these jobs involve “light exertion” according to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ...

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