United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
JAMES T. GUIDRY, Plaintiff,
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security,  Defendant.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
ELIZABETH PEAKE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
James T. Guidry ("Plaintiff5) 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), 1383(c)(3)), to obtain judicial review
of a final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
denying his claims for Disability Insurance Benefits
("DIB") and Supplemental Security Income
("SSI") under 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
protectively filed an application for DIB on March 13, 2014,
alleging a disability onset date of June 1, 2008. (Tr. at 30,
188-96.) His application was denied initially (Tr.
at 109-27, 128-32) and upon reconsideration (Tr. at 118-27,
133-36.) Thereafter, Plaintiff protectively filed a claim for
SSI (Tr. at 30) and requested an administrative hearing de
novo on both his DIB and SSI claims before an Administrative
Law Judge ("ALJ") (Tr. at 137-38).On November 9,
2016, Plaintiff, along with his non-attorney representative
and an impartial vocational expert (“VE"),
attended the subsequent hearing. (Tr. at 69-108.) The ALJ
ultimately concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled within
the meaning of the Act (Tr. at 27-43), and, on December 19,
2017, 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, 185-87).
law "authorizes judicial review of the Social Security
Commissioner's denial of social security benefits."
Hines v. Barnhart 453 F.3d 559, 561 (4th Cir. 2006).
However, the scope of review of such a decision is
"extremely limited/3 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
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
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 Or. 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 179.5 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.
present case, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in
"substantial gainful activity" since his alleged
onset date. The ALJ therefore concluded that Plaintiff met
his burden at step one of the sequential evaluation process.
(Tr. at 32.) At step two, the ALJ further determined that
Plaintiff suffered from the following severe impairments:
degenerative disc disease; obesity; depression; [and]
anxiety. (Tr. at 33.) The ALJ found at step three that none
of these impairments, individually or in combination, met or
equaled a disability listing. (Tr. at 33-35.) Therefore, the
ALJ assessed Plaintiffs RFC and determined that he could
perform light work with further limitations.
the ALJ found that Plaintiff:
can occasionally climb; he can frequently balance, stoop,
kneel, crouch, and crawl; he can have frequent exposure to
work place hazards such as unprotected heights and dangerous
machinery; he is limited to simple, routine, and repetitive
tasks with no fast paced production rate work; he is limited
to a work environment with few, if ...