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Graham v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 9, 2019

ANDREW M. SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1]Defendant.


          L. Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff, Brenda Graham, 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”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”), and Disabled Widow's Insurance Benefits (“DWIB”). (Docket Entry 2.)[2] Defendant has the certified administrative record (Docket Entry 9 (cited herein as “Tr. __”)), and both parties have moved for Judgment (Docket Entries 12, 14; see also Docket Entry 13 (Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 15 (Defendant's Memorandum); Docket Entry 16 (Plaintiff's Reply)). For the reasons that follow, the Court should enter judgment for Defendant.


         Plaintiff applied for DIB, SSI, and DWIB, alleging a disability onset date of August 1, 2010. (Tr. 914-33.) Upon denial of those applications initially (Tr. 651-92, 782-95) and on reconsideration (Tr. 693-749, 803-28), Plaintiff requested a hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (Tr. 829-30). Plaintiff, her attorney, and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the hearing. (Tr. 612-50.) The ALJ subsequently ruled that Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr. 750-66.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's request for review (Tr. 17-23, 909-13), thereby making the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review.

         In rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:

1. [Plaintiff] meets the insured status requirements of the . . . Act through September 30, 2013.
2. It was previously found that [Plaintiff] is the unmarried widow of the deceased insured worker and has attained the age of 50. [Plaintiff] met the non-disability requirements for [DWIB].
. . .
3. The prescribed period [for DWIB] ends on January 31, 2020.
4. [Plaintiff] engaged in substantial gainful activity during the following periods: August 1, 2010 through July 31, 2013.
. . .
5. 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 activity.
6. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairments: obesity, degenerative joint disease, status post LINQ placement, nicotine dependence, osteoarthritis, depression, and anxiety.
. . .
7. [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.
. . .
8. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to perform medium work . . . except [Plaintiff] must avoid concentrated exposure to pulmonary irritants such as dusts, odors, fumes and gases. She is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, no fast pace production work with few workplace changes.
. . .
9. [Plaintiff] is capable of performing past relevant work as a classifier. This work does not require the performance of work-related activities precluded by [Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.
. . .
In the alternative, considering [Plaintiff's] age, education, work experience, and residual functional capacity, there are other jobs that exist in significant No. in the national economy that [Plaintiff] also can perform.
. . .
10. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in the . . . Act, from August 1, 2010, through the date of this decision.

(Tr. 755-66 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations omitted).)


         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 [the Court's] 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, the Court “must uphold the factual findings of the ALJ 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, 401 (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) (brackets and internal 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 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 [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)). “To regularize the adjudicative process, the Social Security Administration [(‘SSA')] has . . . 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.

         This 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 the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475 n.2 (4th Cir. 1999).[3] 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).

         On the 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.[4] 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. See 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 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 Commissioner 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.[5]

         B. Assignments of Error

         Plaintiff argues that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding of no disability on these grounds:

1) the ALJ “err[ed] in finding that [Plaintiff] can perform past relevant work [(‘PRW')] as a [C]lassifier” (Docket Entry 13 at 4 (bold font and underscoring omitted); see also Docket Entry 16 at 1-3);
2) the ALJ “err[ed] by failing to incorporate non-exertional limitations on the ability to stay on task where the [ALJ] first f[ound] that [Plaintiff] was moderately impaired in the maintenance of concentration, persistence, or pace [(‘CPP')]” (Docket Entry 13 at 6 (bold font and underscoring omitted));
3) the ALJ “dr[ew] conclusions that [we]re unwarranted and unsupported by the record or by reason” (id. at 14 (bold font and underscoring omitted); see also Docket Entry 16 at 3-5);
4) “[i]n discussing opinion evidence, the [ALJ] substitutes boilerplate for consideration of the evidence and reasoned conclusions” (Docket Entry 13 at 18 (bold font and underscoring ...

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