United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
PAVLA J. HUNTLEY, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
ELIZABETH PEAKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.
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.
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.) 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).
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
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
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).
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. §
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
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).
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. 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.
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.
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.
Two Severe Impairments
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. "Basic work activities" are
defined as functions such as walking, standing, sitting,
lifting, pushing, pulling, reaching, carrying, handling,
seeing, hearing, speaking, ...