United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
AIOFIMI S. MARTIN, Plaintiff,
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Patrick Auld, United States Magistrate Judge.
Aiofimi S. Martin, 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 1.)
Defendant has filed the certified administrative record
(Docket Entry 8 (cited herein as “Tr. __ ”)), and
both parties have moved for judgment (Docket Entries 11, 13;
see also Docket Entry 12 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket
Entry 14 (Defendant's Memorandum); Docket Entry 15
(Plaintiff's Reply). For the reasons that follow, the
Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of November
15, 2006. (Tr. 329-32.) Upon denial of that application
initially (Tr. 124-35, 176-79) and on reconsideration (Tr.
136-50, 181-84), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before
an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 186).
Plaintiff, her non-attorney representative, and a vocational
expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 76-123.)
The ALJ subsequently determined that Plaintiff did not
qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 151-65.) The Appeals
Council granted Plaintiff's request for review and
remanded the case for further administrative proceedings,
including reevaluation of the impact of Plaintiff's
respiratory disorder and the opinion of consultative examiner
Dr. William Link. (Tr. 171-75, 243-50, 309-13.)
convened a second hearing, which Plaintiff, her non-attorney
representative, and a VE attended. (Tr. 35-75.) The ALJ again
ruled that Plaintiff failed to qualify as disabled. (Tr.
9-23.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's
request for review (Tr. 1-6, 328, 536-39), thereby making the
ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for
purposes of judicial review.
rendering that decision, the ALJ made the following findings:
1. [Plaintiff] last met the insured status requirements of
the . . . Act on September 30, 2016.
2. Through September 30, 2016, [Plaintiff] engaged in
substantial gainful activity during the following periods:
October 2014 through December 2014.
3. However, there has been a continuous 12-month period(s)
during which [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial
gainful activity. The remaining findings address the
period(s) [Plaintiff] did not engage in substantial gainful
4. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
following severe impairments: disorders of the back, other
disorders of the respiratory system, obesity, anxiety, and
5. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] did not have an
impairment or combination of impairments that met or
medically equaled the severity of one of the listed
impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1.
6. . . . [T]hrough the date last insured, [Plaintiff] had the
residual functional capacity to perform light work . . .
except she requires a sit/stand option while remaining on
task; she can frequently operate hand controls bilaterally;
frequently reach overhead with the bilateral upper
extremities; frequently handle, finger, and feel bilaterally;
occasionally climb ramps and stairs; never climb ladders,
ropes, or scaffolds; occasionally balance, stoop, kneel,
crouch, and crawl; limited to hearing and understanding
simple oral instructions; no work at unprotected heights; can
occasionally work around moving mechanical parts; can
occasionally work in dust, odors, fumes and pulmonary
irritants; can occasionally work in vibration; understand,
remember and carryout [sic] instructions is limited to
perform [sic] simple, routine tasks; use judgment is limited
to simple work-related decisions; and dealing with changes in
the work setting is limited to simple work-related decisions.
7. Through the date last insured, [Plaintiff] was unable to
perform any past relevant work.
11. Through the date last insured, considering
[Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and
residual functional capacity, there were jobs that existed in
significant No. in the national economy that [Plaintiff]
could have performed.
12. [Plaintiff] was not under a disability, as defined in the
. . . Act, at any time from August 9, 2014, the alleged onset
date, through September 30, 2016, the date last insured.
(Tr. 14-23 (internal parenthetical citations omitted).)
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
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 marks omitted).
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
[(‘SSA')] 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 Cir. 1990).
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
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.” 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
Assignments of Error
asserts that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding
of no disability on these grounds:
1) “[t]he ALJ failed to either accommodate or reject
the limitations assessed by Dr. [William] Link and [Clyde A.]
Collins[, M.A., C.A.S.]” (Docket Entry 12 at 16 (bold
font and single-spacing omitted); see also Docket Entry 15 at
2) the ALJ failed to provide “a legally sufficient
basis for rejecting [Plaintiff's] testimony”
(Docket Entry 12 at 20 (bold font and single-spacing