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Harrell v. Saul

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

July 26, 2019

Julie Ann Harrell, Plaintiff,
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Robert T. Numbers, II, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Julie Harrell instituted this action in November 2017[1] to challenge the denial of her application for social security income. Harrell claims that Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Sharon L. Madsen erred in evaluating the medical opinion evidence. Both Harrell and Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 17, 22.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Madsen reached the appropriate determination. The undersigned cannot find any fault in her assessment of the medical opinion evidence from the non-examining state agency physicians. The undersigned magistrate judge therefore recommends that the court deny Harrell's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion, and affirm the Commissioner's determination.[2]

         I. Background

         In August 2013, Harrell applied for disability benefits and, in December 2015, applied for supplemental security income. In both applications, Harrell alleged a disability that began in March 2009. After her claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Harrell appeared at a hearing before ALJ Madsen to determine whether she was entitled to benefits. ALJ Madsen determined that Harrell had no right to benefits because she was not disabled. Tr. at 17-30.

         ALJ Madsen found that Harrell had several severe impairments: cervical degenerative disc disease, mild degenerative joint disease of the right hip, Factor 5 Leiden deficiency on anticoagulant, major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), and amphetamine dependence. Tr. at 20. ALJ Madsen concluded that Harrell's impairments, alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Id.

         ALJ Madsen determined that Harrell had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform a reduced range of light work. Tr. at 21. Harrell is limited to occasional overhead reaching. Id. She cannot climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. Id. Harrell cannot work around unprotected heights and she must avoid exposure to sharp object such as knives. Id. And Harrell can perform simple, routine tasks. Id.

         ALJ Madsen concluded that Harrell cannot perform her past relevant work as a retail store manager or inspector and hand packager. Tr. at 28. But considering her age, education, work experience, and RFC, ALJ Madsen found that jobs existed in significant numbers in the national economy that Harrell could perform. Tr. at 29. These include marker, garment sorter, and garment bagger. Id. Thus, ALJ Madsen found that Harrell was not disabled. Tr. at 29-30.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Harrell began this action in November 2017. 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 determining 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. Harrell 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

         Providers at Mineral King Surgical Associates Clinic examined Harrell in February and March 2012. Tr. at 561-62, 814-15. She had normal motor strength and intact sensation. Id. In August 2012, testing revealed mild degenerative changes and moderate neural foraminal stenosis in Harrell's cervical spine. Tr. at 23.

         Later that year, Harrell's neck displayed tenderness from C3-C7. Id. Her back appeared normal aside from tenderness in the lumbosacral region. Id. Harrell displayed positive bilateral straight leg ...

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