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Harris v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 7, 2019

ROBIN SPENCE HARRIS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          L. PATRICK AULD UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff, Robin Spence Harris, 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 9 (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)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff applied for DIB, alleging a disability onset date of December 24, 2012. (Tr. 205-11.) Upon denial of that application initially (Tr. 96-109, 133-41) and on reconsideration (Tr. 110-24, 143-50), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 151-52). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 32-81.) The ALJ subsequently determined that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 11-26.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 1-5, 9-10, 191-92, 391-92), thereby making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that decision, the ALJ made the following findings:

1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the . . . Act through June 30, 2017.
2. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful activity since December 24, 2012, the alleged onset date.
3. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and obesity.
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, Appendix 1.
5. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform light work . . . except that [Plaintiff] must have the option to alternate between a [sic] sitting and standing, in that for every 45 minutes of standing [Plaintiff] requires 15 minutes of sitting. [Plaintiff] can occasionally climb ramps and stairs, but is unable to climb ladders, ropes, or scaffolds. [Plaintiff] can have no more than occasionally [sic] exposure to extreme heat, cold, or humidity. [Plaintiff] cannot work around workplace hazards such as unprotected heights, moving machinery, or bodies of water. [Plaintiff] can perform simple, routine, repetitive tasks, involving no more than simple, short instructions, simple work-related decisions, few work-related changes, and is unable to perform work at a fixed production rate or pace. [Plaintiff] is unable to interact with the general public, but can occasionally interact with coworkers and supervisors.
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 December 24, 2012, through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 16-26 (internal parenthetical citations omitted).)

         II. DISCUSSION

         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). Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the extremely limited review standard.

         A. 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).

         “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 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).

         “In 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).

         When 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)).[2] “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 ...


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