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Ridenhour v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 19, 2019

JANET LYNN WILLIAMSON RIDENHOUR, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security, [1] Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          JOI ELIZABETH PEAKE, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff Janet Lynn Williamson Ridenhour ("Plaintiff) brought this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (the "Act"), as amended (42 U.S.C. § 405(g)), to obtain judicial review of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security denying her claim for Disability Insurance Benefits ("DIB") under Title II of the Act. The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment, and the administrative record has been certified to the Court for review.

         I. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff protectively filed her application for DIB on July 25, 2013, alleging a disability onset date of April 1, 2012. (Tr. at 12, 154-55.)[2] Her claim was denied initially (Tr. at 61-72, 85-92), and that determination was upheld on reconsideration (Tr. at 73-84, 94-97). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 98-99.) Plaintiff attended the subsequent hearing September 29, 2016, along with her attorney and an impartial vocational expert. (Tr. at 12.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 22), and, on September 18, 2017, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiffs request for review of that decision, thereby making the ALJ's conclusion the Commissioner's final decision for purposes of judicial review (Tr. at 1-5).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         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 [the] review of [such an administrative] decision ... is extremely limited." Frady v. Harris. 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Or. 1981). "The courts are not to try the case de novo." Oppenheim v. Finch. 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Or. 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." Hancock v. Astrue. 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Or. 2012) (internal brackets 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 Or. 1996).

         In undertaking this limited review, the Court notes that in administrative proceedings, "[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 Or. 1990).

         On the other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each of the first two steps, and establishes at step three that the impairment "equals or exceeds in severity one or more of the impairments listed in Appendix I of the regulations," then "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 function[al] 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. 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 Commissioner 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.

         III. DISCUSSION

         In the present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in "substantial gainful activity" since April 1, 2012, her alleged onset date. Plaintiff therefore met her burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:

major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and right ear deafness and tinnitus [.]

(Tr. at 14.) The ALJ found at step three that none of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 14-16.) Therefore, the ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that she could perform medium work but was excluded from work that requites hearing in both eats. He also found that Plaintiff requited the following mental restrictions:

simple, routine, repetitive tasks; unskilled work; low stress, meaning no constant change in routine, no complex decision making, no crisis situations; no production rate work; occasional interaction with the public, supervisors, and coworkets; can stay on task for two hours at a time throughout the workday.

(Tr. at 16.) The ALJ found at step four of the sequential analysis that Plaintiffs past relevant work exceeded her RFC. (Tr. at 20-21.) However, the ALJ further determined at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the vocational expert as to these factors, she could perform her other jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. at 21-22.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act (Tr. at 22.)

         Plaintiff now raises three challenges to the ALJ's RFC assessment. First, she asserts that "the ALJ incorrectly evaluated [Plaintiffs] credibility by using a higher standard of proof than required by relevant law." (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #13] at 5.) Second, Plaintiff argues that "the ALJ erred by failing to assign any specific weight to medical opinions." (Id. at 7.) Third, she contends that the RFC limitation to medium work conflicts with the ALJ's determination at step four of the sequential analysis. (Id at ...


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