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Huntley v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 12, 2019

PAVLA J. HUNTLEY, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant



         Plaintiff Pavla J. Huntley ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant to Sections 205(g) and 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g) and 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income under, respectively, Titles II and XVI of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.


         Plaintiff protectively filed applications for Disability Insurance Benefits and Supplemental Security Income Benefits on June 4, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of Match 10, 2008 in both applications. (Tt. at 10, 196-206.)[2] Her applications were denied initially (Tt. at 52-79, 110-17) and upon reconsideration (Tt. at 80-109). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative heating de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tt. at 142-43.) On Match 13, 2017, Plaintiff, along with her attorney and an impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent heating. (Tt. at 10.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tt. at 18), and, on Match 29, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision fot purposes of judicial review (Tt. at 1-5).


         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 Cit. 2006). However, the scope of review of such a decision is "extremely limited." Frady v. Hams, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cit. 1981). "The courts ate not to tty 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 teched through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cit. 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 mote 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 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. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 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 Cir. 1981). 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)).[3]

         "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 '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 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," then "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 "petform 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 No. 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.


         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since March 10, 2008, her alleged onset date. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. (Tr. at 12.) At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from a single severe impairment: bilateral knee rheumatoid arthritis. (Id.) The ALJ found at step three that this impairment did not meet or equal a disability listing. (Tr. at 14.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that she could perform medium work with further limitations. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

can only frequently stoop, must avoid concentrated exposure to cold temperatures; and is limited to performing simple, routine, repetitive tasks.

(Tr. at 14-15.) Based on this determination, the ALJ found under step four of the analysis that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a dietary aide. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 17.)

         Plaintiff now raises two challenges to the ALJ's assessment of her mental impairment. Specifically, she contends that the ALJ (1) "erred in failing to consider Plaintiffs intellectual deficits as a medically determinable severe impairment at step 2 of the sequential evaluation process" and (2) "erred in failing to evaluate Plaintiffs claim under [20 C.F.R., Part 404, Subpt. P, Appx. 1, §§ 12.05B and 12.11 (hereinafter "Listings 12.05B and 12.11")] at step 3...." (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #11] at 4, 6.) After careful consideration of the record, the Court finds that neither of Plaintiffs contentions merit remand.

         A. Step Two Severe Impairments

         Plaintiff first contends that the ALJ should have included an intellectual impairment among Plaintiffs severe impairments at step two of the sequential analysis. At step two of the evaluation process, a plaintiff must establish a "severe impairment," that is, an impairment or combination of impairments that significantly limits the claimant's physical or mental ability to do basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(c). A non-severe impairment is defined as one that "does not significantly limit [a plaintiffs] physical or mental ability to do basic work activities." 20 C.F.R. § 404.1521.[5] "Basic work activities" are defined as functions such as walking, standing, sitting, lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, handling, seeing, hearing, speaking, ...

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