United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
PATRICK AULD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Jeffrey Keith Shaw, brought this action pursuant to the
Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain
judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the
Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's
claim for Disability Insurance Benefits (“DIB”).
(Docket Entry 2.) Defendant has filed the certified
administrative record (Docket Entry 8 (cited herein as
“Tr. ”)), and both parties have moved for
judgment (Docket Entries 10, 12; see also Docket Entry 11
(Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 13
(Defendant's Memorandum)). For the reasons that follow,
the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of October
24, 2013. (Tr. 194-95.) Upon denial of that application
initially (Tr. 83-98, 122-25) and on reconsideration (Tr.
99-120, 129-33), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 134-35).
Plaintiff, his attorney, and a vocational expert
(“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 50-82.) The ALJ
subsequently determined that Plaintiff did not qualify as
disabled under the Act. (Tr. 30-45.) The Appeals Council
thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr.
1-6, 12, 14), thereby making the ALJ's ruling the
Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial
rendering that decision, the ALJ made the following findings:
1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the .
. . Act through March 31, 2018.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since October 24, 2013, the alleged onset date.
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease, degenerative joint disease of the
right hip, sciatica, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
(COPD), neuropathy, dysphagia, alcohol dependence disorder,
anxiety, and depression.
4. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
5. . . . [Plaintiff] had the residual functional capacity to
perform light work . . . with a sit/stand option with the
ability to change position twice per hour. He cannot climb
ropes, ladders, or scaffolds; and can occasionally climb
ramps and stairs. [Plaintiff] should avoid concentrated
exposure to hazards, such as moving machinery or unprotected
heights. He is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive
tasks of unskilled work. [Plaintiff] must have no constant
change in routine, no complex decision-making, and no crisis
situation [sic]. [Plaintiff] must have no production rate,
and can stay on task for two hours at a time. [Plaintiff] is
limited to occasional interaction with the public.
6. [Plaintiff] is unable to perform any past relevant work.
10. Considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work
experience, and residual functional capacity, there are jobs
that exist in significant No. in the national economy that
[Plaintiff] can perform.
11. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined
in the . . . Act, from October 24, 2013, through the date of
(Tr. 35-45 (internal parenthetical citations
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). Plaintiff has
not established entitlement to relief under the extremely
limited review standard.
Standard of Review
“[C]ourts are not to try [a Social Security] case de
novo.” Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397
(4th Cir. 1974). Instead, “a reviewing court must
uphold the factual findings of the ALJ [underlying the denial
of benefits] if they are supported by substantial evidence
and were reached through application of the correct legal
standard.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561 (internal
brackets and quotation marks omitted).
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 Cir. 1992) (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 Cir. 2001) (internal
brackets 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
reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ, as adopted by the Social Security Commissioner].”
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
[Social Security Commissioner] (or the ALJ).”
Id. at 179 (internal quotation marks omitted).
“The issue before [the 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.
Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996).
confronting that issue, the Court must take note that
“[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, in this context,
“disability” means the “‘inability to
engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any
medically determinable physical or 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)). “To regularize the adjudicative
process, the Social Security Administration has . . .
promulgated . . . detailed regulations incorporating
longstanding medical-vocational evaluation policies that take
into account a claimant's age, education, and work
experience in addition to [the claimant's] medical
condition.” Id. “These regulations
establish a ‘sequential evaluation process' to
determine whether a claimant is disabled.” Id.
(internal citations omitted).
sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to
five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in
‘substantial gainful activity,' i.e., currently
working; and (2) must have a ‘severe' impairment
that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings' of
specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the
extent that the claimant does not possess the residual
functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past
work or (5) any other work.” Albright v.
Commissioner of Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2
(4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at any
of several points in the SEP forecloses an award 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
‘severely' disabled. If not, benefits are
denied.” Bennett v. Sullivan, 917 F.2d 157, 159 (4th
other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each
of the first three steps, “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, the ALJ must assess the claimant's
residual functional capacity (‘RFC').”
Id. at 179. 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, whereupon the ALJ
must decide “whether the claimant is able to perform
other work considering both [the RFC] and [the
claimant's] vocational capabilities (age, education, and
past work experience) to adjust to a new job.” ...