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Crouse v. Saul

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

August 26, 2019

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


          Joi Elizabeth Peake United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff William Monroe Crouse, Jr. ("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 his 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 on July 31, 2014, alleging a disability onset date of May 1, 2011. (Tr. at 15, 187-195.)[2] His application was denied initially (Tr. at 102-105) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 111-115). Thereafter, Plaintiff requested an administrative hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ"). (Tr. at 116-118.) Plaintiff, along with his attorney and an impartial vocational expert ("VE"), attended the subsequent hearing on January 9, 2017. (Tr. at 30.) The ALJ ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Act since July 31, 2014, the date the application was filed.[3] (Tr. at 25.) On February 6, 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 1-5.)


         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 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 Cir. 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 Or. 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.5" Id. (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A)).

         "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 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 "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 July 31, 2014, the application date." (Tr. at 17.) Plaintiff therefore met his burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process. At step two, the ALJ further determined that Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments: "Asthma, Borderline Intellectual Functioning vs. Lower Intelligence; Renal Insufficiency, and Depression." (Id.) The ALJ found at step three that these impairments did not meet or equal a disability listing. (Id.) Plaintiff does not challenge this listing determination at step three. The ALJ then assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that he could perform unskilled light work, with the following additional limitations:

stand and walk for 2 hours at a time and for a total of 6 hours in an 8-hour workday; he can sit for 30 minutes at a time and for a total of 4 hours in an 8-hour workday; and he can lift and carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently. He can occasionally] reach in all directions, handle, finger, and feel frequently, but not continuously, with his right dominant upper extremity. Mentally, the claimant is limited to simple, routine, repetitive tasks, with only occasional contact with co-workers, supervisors, and the public.

(Tr. at 19.) Based on the RFC determination, the ALJ found under step four of the analysis that Plaintiff had no past relevant work. (Tr. at 24.) The ALJ also determined at step five that, given Plaintiffs age, education, work experience, RFC, and the testimony of the VE as to these factors, he could perform other jobs available in the national economy. (Tr. at 24-25.) Therefore, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. at 25.)

         Plaintiff now argues that the ALJ erred in three respects. First, citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Or. 2015), Plaintiff contends that "[t]he ALJ's failure to properly account for pais] moderate limitations in concentration, persistence, and pace in his RFC is error[.]" (Pl.'s Br. [Doc. #11] at 5.) Second, Plaintiff contends that "the ALJ's reliance on the VE's testimony is in error" based on an unresolved conflict with the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT"). (Id. at 10.) Third, Plaintiff contends that "the ALJ's appointment did not comply with the Appointments Clause." (Id. at 19.) For the reasons set out below, the ...

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