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Ruiz v. Saul

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

August 27, 2019

Ramiro Roman Ruiz, Plaintiff,
v.
Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          Robert T. Numbers, II United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Ramiro Ruiz instituted this action in May 2018 to challenge the denial of his application for social security income. Ruiz claims that Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Vanessa Lucas erred in (1) failing to account for his mental impairments when determining his residual functional capacity (“RFC”), and (2) applying the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (“Grids”). Both Ruiz and Defendant Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security, have filed motions seeking a judgment on the pleadings in their favor. D.E. 26, 30.

         After reviewing the parties' arguments, the court has determined that ALJ Lucas reached the appropriate determination. ALJ Lucas correctly considered Ruiz's mental impairments when determining the RFC. And she applied the appropriate Grid Rule at step five. The undersigned magistrate judge denies Ruiz's motion, grants the Commissioner's motion, and affirms the Commissioner's determination.[1]

         I. Background

         In September 2014, Ruiz filed applied for disability insurance benefits, alleging a disability that began in December 2012. After his claim was denied at the initial level and upon reconsideration, Ruiz appeared before ALJ Lucas for a hearing to determine whether he was entitled to benefits. ALJ Lucas determined Ruiz had no right to benefits because he was not disabled. Tr. at 12-22.

         ALJ Lucas found that Ruiz had several severe impairments including: degenerative disc disease of the cervical spine, chronic low back pain, left shoulder bursitis/degenerative joint disease, with a history of rotator cuff repair surgery, Achilles tendonitis and pes planus of the bilateral feet, and obesity. Tr. at 14. ALJ Lucas also found that Ruiz's impairments, either alone or in combination, did not meet or equal a Listing impairment. Tr. at 17.

         ALJ Lucas then determined that Ruiz had the RFC to perform a full range of sedentary work. Tr. at 18. ALJ Lucas concluded that Ruiz could perform his past relevant work as a general operations agent and security officer. Tr. at 22. Thus, ALJ Lucas found that Ruiz was not disabled. Id.

         After unsuccessfully seeking review by the Appeals Council, Ruiz commenced this action in May 2018. D.E. 1.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard for Review of the Acting Commissioner's Final Decision

         When a social security claimant appeals a final decision of the Commissioner, the district court's review is limited to determining whether, based on the entire administrative record, there is substantial evidence to support the Commissioner's findings. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Substantial evidence is defined as “evidence which a reasoning mind would accept as sufficient to support a particular conclusion.” Shively v. Heckler, 739 F.2d 987, 989 (4th Cir. 1984) (quoting Laws v. Celebrezze, 368 F.2d 640, 642 (4th Cir. 1966)). The court must affirm the Commissioner's decision if it is supported by substantial evidence. Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996).

         B. Standard for Evaluating Disability

         In making a disability determination, the ALJ engages in a five-step evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520; see Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650 (4th Cir. 2005). The ALJ must consider the factors in order. At step one, if the claimant is engaged in substantial gainful activity, the claim is denied. At step two, the claim is denied if the claimant does not have a severe impairment or combination of impairments significantly limiting him or her from performing basic work activities. At step three, the claimant's impairment is compared to those in the Listing of Impairments. See 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. If the impairment is listed in the Listing of Impairments or if it is equivalent to a listed impairment, disability is conclusively presumed. But if the claimant's impairment does not meet or equal a listed impairment, the ALJ assesses the claimant's RFC to determine, at step four, whether he can perform his past work despite his impairments. If the claimant cannot perform past relevant work, the analysis moves on to step five: establishing whether the claimant, based on his age, work experience, and RFC can perform other substantial gainful work. The burden of proof is on the claimant for the first four steps of this inquiry, but shifts to the Commissioner at the fifth step. Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d 1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995).

         C. Medical Background[2]

         Ruiz served about 20 years in the Army. Tr. at 481. He has a history of mental health conditions, including diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), headaches, dementia, and depression. Tr. at 14.

         In 2005, the Veterans Administration (“VA”) determined that Ruiz had a 30% disability rating for PTSD and depression.[3] Tr. at 192. The VA later increased this rating to 50% based on suicidal ideations, memory impairment, occupational and social impairments, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances. Tr. at 193.

         In June 2011, John Bolger, Ph.D., conducted a consultative psychological examination. Tr. at 15. Based on testing results, Dr. Bolger found little evidence of a neurocognitive dysfunction. Id.

         Mental status examinations between 2012 and 2014 reflect that Ruiz had a withdrawn mood, constricted affect, and reported auditory hallucinations. Tr. at 510, 518, 548, 572, 592, 616. In July 2014, Ruiz presented to the Emergency Department of Womack Army ...


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