United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND RECOMMENDATION OF UNITED
STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
Patrick Auld United States Magistrate Judge.
Katrina Joyce Unbehagen, brought this action pursuant to the
Social Security Act (the “Act”) to obtain
judicial review of a final decision of Defendant, the
Commissioner of Social Security, denying Plaintiff's
claim for Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”).
(Docket Entry 1.) Defendant has filed the certified
administrative record (Docket Entry 8 (cited herein as
“Tr.__”)), and both parties have moved for
judgment (Docket Entries 10, 12; see also Docket Entry 11
(Plaintiff's Memorandum); Docket Entry 13
(Defendant's Memorandum); Docket Entry 14
(Plaintiff's Reply)). For the reasons that follow, the
Court should enter judgment for Defendant.
applied for SSI. (Tr. 206-13.) Upon denial of that
application initially (Tr. 83-100, 119-22) and on
reconsideration (Tr. 101-18, 132-41), Plaintiff requested a
hearing de novo before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”) (Tr. 142-45). Plaintiff, her attorney,
and a vocational expert (“VE”) attended the
hearing. (Tr. 31-64). The ALJ subsequently ruled that
Plaintiff did not qualify as disabled under the Act. (Tr.
15-25.) The Appeals Council thereafter denied Plaintiff's
request for review (Tr. 1-6, 204-05, 318-21), thereby making
the ALJ's ruling the Commissioner's final decision
for purposes of judicial review.
rendering that disability determination, the ALJ made the
following findings later adopted by the Commissioner:
1. [Plaintiff] has not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since December 31, 2014, the application date.
2. [Plaintiff] has the following severe impairment: status
post cerebrovascular accident (CVA) with history of coronary
artery disease (CAD).
3. [Plaintiff] does not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that meets or medically equals the severity of
one of the listed impairments in 20 CFR Part 404, Subpart P,
4. . . . [Plaintiff] has the residual functional capacity to
perform medium exertional work . . . with the following
limitations. She can occasionally climb ladders, ropes, or
scaffolds. She can frequently climb ramps or stairs, balance,
stoop, crouch, kneel, and crawl. She should avoid
concentrated exposure to unprotected heights.
5. [Plaintiff] is capable of performing past relevant work as
a picket and manager. This work does not require the
performance of work-related activities precluded by
[Plaintiff's] residual functional capacity.
6. [Plaintiff] has not been under a disability, as defined in
the [Act], since December 31, 2014, the date the application
(Tr. 20-25 (bold font and internal parenthetical citations
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 [the Court's] review
of [such a] decision . . . is extremely limited.”
Frady v. Harris, 646 F.2d 143, 144 (4th Cir. 1981).
Plaintiff has not established entitlement to relief under the
extremely limited review standard.
Standard of Review
are not to try [a Social Security] case de novo.”
Oppenheim v. Finch, 495 F.2d 396, 397 (4th Cir.
1974). Instead, the 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.” Hines, 453 F.3d at 561
(internal brackets and quotation marks 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. 1992) (quoting
Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (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)
(brackets and internal 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).
reviewing for substantial evidence, the [C]ourt should not
undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute its judgment for that of the
[ALJ, as adopted by the Commissioner].”
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
[Commissioner] (or the ALJ).” Id. at 179
(internal quotation marks omitted). “The issue before
[the 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).
confronting that issue, the Court must take note that
“[a] claimant for disability benefits bears the burden
of proving a disability, ” Hall v. Harris, 658
F.2d 260, 264 (4th Cir. 1981), and that, 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.
§ 423(d)(1)(A)). “To regularize the adjudicative
process, the Social Security Administration
[(‘SSA')] has . . . detailed regulations
incorporating longstanding medical-vocational evaluation
policies that take into account a claimant's age,
education, and work experience in addition to [the
claimant's] medical condition.” Id.
“These regulations establish a ‘sequential
evaluation process' to determine whether a claimant is
sequential evaluation process (“SEP”) has up to
five steps: “The claimant (1) must not be engaged in
‘substantial gainful activity,' i.e., currently
working; and (2) must have a ‘severe' impairment
that (3) meets or exceeds the ‘listings' of
specified impairments, or is otherwise incapacitating to the
extent that the claimant does not possess the residual
functional capacity to (4) perform [the claimant's] past
work or (5) any other work.” Albright v.
Commissioner of the Soc. Sec. Admin., 174 F.3d 473, 475
n.2 (4th Cir. 1999). A finding adverse to the claimant at any
of several points in the SEP forecloses an award 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 Cir. 1990).
other hand, if a claimant carries his or her burden at each
of the first three steps, “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,
the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional
capacity (‘RFC').” Id. at
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. See Id.
at 179-80. However, if the claimant establishes an inability
to return to prior work, the analysis proceeds to the fifth
step, whereupon 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 Commissioner 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.
Assignments of Error
asserts that the Court should overturn the ALJ's finding
of no disability on these grounds:
1) “[t]he ALJ erred by finding that Plaintiff's
right knee [osteoarthritis] was not a[ medically determinable
impairment]” (Docket Entry 11 at 4 (bold font omitted);
see also Docket Entry 14 at 1-3); and
2) “[r]emand is required because at the time [the
ALJ's] decision was issued, [her] appointment did not
comply with the Appointments Clause” (Docket Entry 11