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Joines v. Berryhill

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

September 4, 2019

TINA MARIE JOINES, Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER

          Robert J. Conrad, Jr. United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 9), Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment, (Doc. No. 11), and Plaintiff's Consent Motion for Second Extension of Time, (Doc. No. 8). The motions are ripe for adjudication.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Procedural Background

         Tina Marie Joines (“Plaintiff”) seeks judicial review of Nancy A. Berryhill's (“Defendant” or “Commissioner”) denial of her social security claim. Plaintiff filed an application for Disability Insurance under Title II of the Social Security Act (“SSA”) on January 26, 2015. (Doc. Nos. 6 to 6-1: Administrative Record (“Tr.”) at 169.) Her application was denied first on May 18, 2015, (Tr. 94), and upon reconsideration on September 18, 2015, (Tr. 90). Plaintiff timely filed a request for a hearing on October 27, 2015, (Tr. 111), and an administrative hearing was held by an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on March 6, 2017, (Tr. 131). Following this hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff was not disabled under the SSA. (Tr. 18-27.) Plaintiff requested a review of the ALJ's decision, but on February 22, 2018, the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review. (Tr. 1.) Having exhausted her administrative remedies, Plaintiff now seeks judicial review of Defendant's denial of her social security claim in this Court.

         B. Factual Background

         The question before the ALJ was whether Plaintiff was disabled under Sections 216(i) and 223(d) of the SSA. (Tr. 18.) To establish entitlement to benefits, Plaintiff has the burden of proving that she was disabled within the meaning of the SSA.[1]Bowen v. Yuckert, 482 U.S. 137, 146 n.5 (1987). Plaintiff alleges that her disability began on October 26, 2013 due to physical and mental impairments. (Tr. 169.)

         After reviewing Plaintiff's record and conducting a hearing, the ALJ found that Plaintiff did not suffer from a disability as defined in the SSA. (Tr. 27.) In reaching her conclusion, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process established by the Social Security Administration for determining if a person is disabled. The Fourth Circuit has described the five-steps as follows:

[The ALJ] asks whether the claimant: (1) worked during the purported period of disability; (2) has an impairment that is appropriately severe and meets the duration requirement; (3) has an impairment that meets or equals the requirements of a listed impairment and meets the duration requirement; (4) can return to her past relevant work; and (5) if not, can perform any other work in the national economy.

Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 290-91 (4th Cir. 2013) (paraphrasing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant has the burden of production and proof in the first four steps. Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015). However, at the fifth step, the Commissioner must prove that the claimant is able to perform other work in the national economy despite her limitations. See id.; see also 20 C.F.R. § 416.960(c)(2) (explaining that the Commissioner has the burden to prove at the fifth step “that other work exists in significant numbers in the national economy that [the claimant] can do”).

         In this case, the ALJ determined at the fourth step that Plaintiff was not disabled. (Tr. 24-25.) In reaching her decision, the ALJ first concluded at steps one through three that Plaintiff was not employed, that Plaintiff suffered from severe physical impairments, [2] and that Plaintiff's impairments did not meet or equal any of the impairments listed in the Administration's regulations. (Tr. 20-22.) Therefore, the ALJ examined the evidence of Plaintiff's impairments and made a finding as to Plaintiff's Residual Functional Capacity (“RFC”). In pertinent part, the ALJ found that Plaintiff “has the [RFC] to perform light work . . . except pushing and pulling with the left upper extremity must be limited to frequently. In addition, within the assigned work area, there must be less than occasional (seldom or rare) exposure to hazards including machinery and unprotected heights.” (Tr. 22.)

         Having established Plaintiff's RFC, the ALJ concluded that Plaintiff could perform her past work as a cashier. (Tr. 24-25.) To make that determination, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”). The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform her past work as a cashier as generally performed. (Tr. 60.) Nevertheless, the ALJ proceeded to make alternative findings under the fifth and final step of the process: determining whether, given the limitations embodied in her RFC, Plaintiff could perform any work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy. (Tr. 25-27.) The VE testified that Plaintiff could perform three jobs that existed in significant numbers in the national economy: “assembler, ”[3]“inspector, ”[4] and “grader.”[5] (Tr. 26.) According to the DOT, all of these jobs involve “light work.” The ALJ accepted the VE's testimony and concluded that Plaintiff's impairments did not prevent her from working; consequently, Plaintiff's application for Title II benefits was denied. (Tr. 25-27.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The Court must decide whether substantial evidence supports the final decision of the Commissioner and whether the Commissioner fulfilled her lawful duty in her determination that Plaintiff was not ...


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