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Lamb v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

September 3, 2019

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Max O. Cogburn, Jr. United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 13). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for disability benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2018). For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, and the Commissioner's final decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The procedural history of this case is not in dispute. Plaintiff applied for Social Security disability benefits on May 29, 2012, alleging that her disability began on January 2, 2010. (Tr. 1446, 1500). Plaintiff's claim was denied at three points: initially, upon reconsideration, and by an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 88-99, 114-27, 145-58, 175-91, 18-33). Plaintiff then requested review of the ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council, which was denied. (Tr. 1436-42). Next, Plaintiff filed a timely appeal in this Court. (Tr. 1536). Before fully briefing the case, the parties agreed to remand to the ALJ, which the Court ordered on April 7, 2016. (Tr. 1536-37).

         On remand, the ALJ held a second administrative hearing, issuing a decision on February 14, 2017. (Tr. 1446-64). In that decision, using the standard five-part test, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act. (Tr. 1446-64). In the February 14, 2017, decision, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful employment since January 2, 2010, the date she alleged her disability began. (Tr. 1448). Next, the ALJ found that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: obesity, migraine headaches, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and panic disorder without agoraphobia. (Tr. 1449); see 20 CFR §§ 404.1520(c), 416.920(c). The ALJ then found that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or medically equal the severity of one of the listed impairments. (Tr. 1450). The ALJ then determined that Plaintiff had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”):

to perform light work as defined in 20 C.F.R. 404.1567(b) and 416.967(b) except the claimant should perform no work with the public and should work with things rather than people. Within these limitations, she could have occasional supervision and occasional interaction with coworkers.

(Tr. 1453). Based on these limitations, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was unable to perform her past relevant work as a cashier/stocker. (Tr. 1463). Finally, the ALJ determined that there existed a significant number of jobs in the national economy that Plaintiff could perform, given her RFC. (Tr. 1463). Based on these determinations, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff was not disabled under the Social Security Act and was, therefore, not entitled to disability insurance benefits. (Tr. 1464). On May 15, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review, rendering the Commissioner's decision final. (Tr. 1436-42). Plaintiff has filed this civil action for judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision.

         Plaintiff now argues that (1) the case should be remanded as the appointment of the ALJ by the Social Security Administration violated the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and (2) the case should be remanded as the ALJ's decision was not supported by substantial evidence considering the standard set in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir. 2015), as it did not incorporate Plaintiff's “vocationally significant mental health limitations.” (Pl. Br. 21). Defendant contends, first, that Plaintiff has waived the first claim by failing to raise it at any point during the administrative process and, second, that the ALJ's decision is supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed as the ALJ properly explained his findings regarding Plaintiff's mental impairments and accounted for the appropriate limitations in the RFC. (Def. Br. 2).


         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code permits judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g) (2018). When reviewing a Social Security disability determination, a reviewing court must “uphold the determination when an [ALJ] has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence.” Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). Substantial evidence is that which “a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted). It “consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Hancock v. Astrue, 667 F.3d 470, 472 (4th Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). In reviewing the record for substantial evidence, the Court does “not undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgment for that of the ALJ. Where conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the ALJ.” Id. (citation omitted).

         In considering an application for disability benefits, the Commissioner uses a five-step “sequential” process to evaluate the disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). In doing so, 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 severity of a listed impairment; (4) could return to his past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy. Id.; see also Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Mascio, 780 F.3d at 634). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861; Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016).

         III. ANALYSIS

         Having carefully considered the record, the parties' briefs, and Plaintiff's assignments of error, the Court finds that Plaintiff has waived her ability to raise an improper appointment claim by not raising the issue earlier in the administrative process and that the Commissioner's decision was supported by substantial evidence.

         A. Plaintiff has waived the ability to make a Lucia claim by not raising the issueat any point ...

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