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King v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 16, 2019

DONNA R. KING, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant.


          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Donna R. King ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant to Section 1631(c)(3) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Supplemental Security Income ("SSI") under Title 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 an application for SSI[2] on November 13, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of January 21, 2012. (Tr. at 221-30.)[3] Her application was denied initially (Tr. at 76-90, 140-43) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 91-110, 149-53). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 156-58.) On April 10, 2017, Plaintiff, along with her attorney and an impartial vocational expert, attended the subsequent hearing. (Tr. at 37-75.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 7-21), and, on March 12, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of the decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-6).


         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 Or. 2006). However, the scope of review of such a decision is "extremely limited." Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981). "The courts are not to try the 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 if they are supported by substantial evidence and were reached through application of the correct legal standard." Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Or. 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 Cir. 1993) (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 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)).[4]

         "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.[5] 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, which "requires the [Government] to prove that a significant number 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 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 the following severe impairments:

major depressive disorder; post-traumatic stress disorder; and generalized anxiety disorder.

(Id.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 13-14.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that she could "perform a full range of work at all exertional levels" with further limitations. Specifically, the ALJ found that Plaintiff

may occasionally interact with others; she retains the capacity to perform simple, repetitive, routine, tasks; [Plaintiff] must be off-task for 10 percent of the workday; and she would be absent from work once a month.

(Tr. at 14.) Under step four of the analysis, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff could perform her past relevant work as a housekeeper as actually and generally performed and therefore was not disabled. (Tr. at 20.)

         In Plaintiffs sole assignment of error, she argues that "[t]he ALJ committed a reversible error of law at step three of [the] sequential evaluation by failing to adequately explain why the medical evidence of record does not show that [Plaintiff] meets [L]isting 12.04 for depressive disorders." (Pl.'s Br. [Doc #11] at 2-3.) In particular, Plaintiff contends that "the ALJ failed to evaluate whether the medical evidence documents at least five of the nine paragraph A criteria" and "failed to provide an adequate explanation for why [Plaintiff] has only a moderate, rather than a marked, limitation in adapting and managing oneself." (Id. at 5-6.)[6] After a careful review of the record, the Court finds no basis for remand.

         "Under Step 3, the regulation states that a claimant will be found disabled if he or she has an impairment that 'meets or equals one of [the] listings in appendix 1 of [20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P] and meets the duration requirement'" Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 293 (4th Or. 2013) (quoting 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a) (4) (iii)). "The listings set out at 20 CFR pt. 404, subpt. P, App. 1, are descriptions of various physical and mental illnesses and abnormalities, most of which are categorized by the body system they affect. Each impairment is defined in terms of several specific medical signs, symptoms, or laboratory test results." Sullivan v. Zebley, 493 U.S. 521, 529-30 (1990). "In order to satisfy a listing and qualify for benefits, a person must meet all of the medical criteria in a particular listing." Bennett, 917 F.2d at 160 (citing Zebley, 493 U.S. at 530, and 20 C.F.R. § 404.1526(a)).

         Effective on January 17, 2017, the Commissioner made revisions to the criteria for evaluating mental disorders in the Listing of Impairments. Listing 12.04 covers "depressive, bipolar and related disorders" and requires a claimant to establish the ...

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