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Wells v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

July 16, 2019

Angelina Jean Wells, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Angelina Wells instituted this action in October 2018 to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Wells claims that Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Mason Hogan erred in (1) determining Wells's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) and (2) evaluating her statements on functioning. Both Wells and Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 17, 20.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Hogan reached the appropriate determination. Substantial evidence supports ALJ Hogan's finding that Wells can perform a reduced range of light work. And the undersigned finds no error in ALJ Hogan's determination that Wells's statements were not fully consistent with the record. The undersigned magistrate judge therefore recommends that the court deny Wells's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's decision.[1]

         I. Background

         In May 2016, Wells protectively applied for disability benefits and supplemental security income. In both applications, she alleged a disability that began in January 2010.[2] After her claims were denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Wells appeared at a hearing before ALJ Hogan to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. ALJ Hogan determined that Wells was not entitled to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 15-36.

         ALJ Hogan found that Wells had several severe impairments: morbid obesity, spondylosis, mild degenerative joint disease of the left hip, sacroiliitis, osteopenia, and diabetes mellitus. Tr. at 18. ALJ Hogan found that Wells's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 22.

         ALJ Hogan determined that Wells had the RFC to perform a reduced range of light work. Tr. at 23-24. Wells can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but she can never climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Id. She is limited to occasional stooping, kneeling, couching, and crawling. Id. Wells must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as fumes, odors, dust, gases, and poor ventilation. Id. And Wells must also avoid concentrated exposure to hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous machinery. Id.

         ALJ Hogan concluded that Wells cannot perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper, fast food worker, or machine operator. Tr. at 33. But considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, ALJ Hogan found that other jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Wells could perform. Tr. at 34-35. These include laundry folder, cashier, and mail clerk. Tr. at 35. Thus, ALJ Hogan found that Wells was not disabled. Id.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Wells began this action in June 2018. D.E. 1.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to the determination of whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). If the Commissioner's decision is supported by such evidence, it must be affirmed. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The analysis requires the ALJ to consider the following enumerated factors sequentially. At step one, if the claimant is currently engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. However, if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         C. Medical Background

         Wells established care with Eastern North Carolina Medical Group in May 2014 for chronic back pain that radiated into her hips and legs. Tr. at 450-55. Wells also reported a history of uncontrolled diabetes. ...

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