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Halperin v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 2, 2019

LAURA SUE HALPERIN, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          Joi Elizabeth Peake, United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Laura Sue Halperin ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed an application for DIB on June 7, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of May 12, 2012. (Tr. at 17, 315-18.)[2] Her application was denied initially (Tr. at 114-22, 166-69) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 123-42, 171-74). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 177-78.) On July 27, 2016, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, and an impartial vocational expert (CCVE") attended the subsequent hearing. (Tr. at 69-101.) The ALJ ultimately ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled at any time from her onset date, May 12, 2012, to her date last insured ("DLI") for DIB, September 30, 2015. (Tr. at 143-57.) However, the Appeals Council granted Plaintiffs request for review, finding that Plaintiffs DLI at the time of the ALJ's decision was December 31, 2015, rather than September 30, 2015, and that, due to Plaintiffs additional earnings in 2016, her current DLI was December 31, 2017. (Tr. at 162-65, 238-43.)

         Upon remand, a second hearing was held before the same ALJ, which Plaintiff, her attorney, and another impartial VE attended. (Tr. at 39-68.)[3] The ALJ again concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 14-32), and, on March 9, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. At 1-7, 311-14).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Federal law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits." Hines v. Barnhart 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006). However, the scope of review of such a decision is "extremely limited." Frady v. Harris. 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "The courts are not to try the case de novo." Oppenheim v. Finch. 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cit. 1974). Instead, "a reviewing court: must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ if they ate supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue. 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Or. 2012) (internal quotation omitted).

         "Substantial evidence means 'such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.'" Hunter v. Sullivan. 993 F.2d 31, 34 (4th Cit. 1993) (quoting Richardson v. Perales. 402 U.S. 389, 390 (1971)). "It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be somewhat less than a preponderance." Mastro v. Apfel, 270 F.3d 171, 176 (4th Cit. 2001) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). "If there is evidence to justify a refusal to direct a verdict were the case before a jury, then there is substantial evidence." Hunter, 993 F.2d at 34 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         "In reviewing for substantial evidence, the court should not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the [ALJ]." Mastro. 270 F.3d at 176 (internal brackets and quotation marks omitted). "Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ." Hancock 667 F.3d at 472. "The issue before [the reviewing court], therefore, is not whether [the claimant] is disabled, but whether the ALJ's finding that [the claimant] is not disabled is supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon a correct application of the relevant law." Craig v. Chatet, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Or. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that "[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden of proving a disability." Hall v. Harris, 658 F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cit.1981). In this context, "disability" means the "'inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical of mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months/" Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).[4]

         "The Commissioner uses a five-step process to evaluate disability claims." Hancock, 667 F.3d at 472 (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4); 416.920(a)(4)). "Under this process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the requirements of a listed impairment; (4) could return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy." Id.

         A finding adverse to the claimant at any of several points in this five-step sequence forecloses a disability designation and ends the inquiry. For example, "[t]he first step determines whether the claimant is engaged in 'substantial gainful activity.' If the claimant is working, benefits are denied. The second step determines if the claimant is 'severely5 disabled. If not, benefits are denied." Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th Or. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at the first two steps, and if the claimant's impairment meets or equals a "listed impairment" at step three, "the claimant is disabled." Mastro, 270 F.3d at 177. Alternatively, if a claimant; clears steps one and two, but falters at step three, i.e., "[i]f a claimant's impairment is not sufficiently severe to equal or exceed a listed impairment/5 then "the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity ('RFC')." Id. at 179.[5] Step four then requires the ALJ to assess whether, based on that RFC, the claimant can "perform past relevant work"; if so, the claimant does not qualify-as disabled. Id. at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth step, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a significant number of jobs exist which the claimant could perform, despite the claimant's impairments." Hines, 453 F.3d at 563. In making this determination, the ALJ must decide "whether the claimant is able to perform other work considering both [the claimant's RFC] and [the claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and past work experience) to adjust to a new job." Hall, 658 F.2d at 264-65. If, at this step, the Government cannot carry its "evidentiary burden of proving that [the claimant] remains able to work other jobs available in the community," the claimant qualifies as disabled. Hines, 453 F.3d at 567.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since her amended alleged onset date. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. (Tr. at 19.) At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

scoliosis and mild degenerative disc disease, status post spine surgeries in March 2017; seizure disorder; depressive disorder; and anxiety disorder.

(Tr. at 20.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 21-23.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that she ...


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