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Mims v. Saul

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

September 26, 2019

LATASHA R. MIMS, Plaintiff,
v.
ANDREW SAUL, Commissioner of Social Security Defendant.

          ORDER

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

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Latasha R. Mims’ Motion for Summary Judgment (#11) filed November 12, 2018, and Defendant Commissioner’s Motion for Summary Judgment (#15) filed February 7, 2019. Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative review decision on her application for disability insurance benefits. For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and this matter is REVERSED and REMANDED for further proceedings consistent with this order.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff filed an application for disability insurance benefits on November 28, 2014. (Tr. 15). Plaintiff alleges disability beginning May 13, 2013. (Tr. 15). The application was denied initially and upon reconsideration. (Tr. 86, 91). Plaintiff requested a hearing on April 29, 2015. (Tr. 95). After the hearing on June 8, 2017, (Tr. 15), the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued an unfavorable decision for Plaintiff. (Tr. 24). Following the ALJ’s denial of benefits, Plaintiff requested a review of the hearing, which was subsequently denied by the Appeals Council on May 7, 2018. (Tr. 5).

         The ALJ first found at step one that Plaintiff had no substantial gainful activity since May 13, 2013, and had met the insured status requirement through December 31, 2018. (Tr. 17). At step two, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff had the following severe impairments: a history of breast cancer with a double mastectomy, degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, and hypertension. (Tr. 17). At step three, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff did not have an impairment or a combination of impairments that met or medically equaled the level of severity of one of the impairments found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, App. 1. (Tr. 18). The ALJ further stated that “[t]he claimant’s condition does not meet the requirements of Listing 1.04 (disorders of the spine) because the claimant does not have evidence of nerve root compression, or spinal arachnoiditis, or lumber spine stenosis resulting in pseudoclaudication.” (Tr. 18).

         At step four, regarding Plaintiff’s residual functional capacity (“RFC”), the ALJ wrote:

After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that the claimant has the residual functional capacity to perform light work (lift or carry 20 pounds occasionally and 10 pounds frequently, stand or walk for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with normal breaks and sit for six hours out of an eight-hour workday with normal breaks) as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except she would be limited to only frequent climbing, stooping, kneeling, and crawling. She could occasionally crouch. The claimant would be linked to frequent overhead reaching with the left upper extremity and occasional reaching with the right upper extremity. The claimant could only occasionally handle [sic?] and finger bilaterally.

(Tr. 18).

         Next, as step five, the vocational expert (“VE”), in response to a hypothetical posed by the ALJ, testified that Plaintiff was unable to perform any of her past work as a data entry clerk. (Tr. 22, 57). However, the VE went on to testify that Plaintiff could perform other jobs that are readily available in the national economy, such as “Baker Conveyor Worker, ” a light occupation of which there are approximately 23, 000 jobs nationally, “Bus Monitor, ” a light occupation of which there are approximately 17, 000 jobs nationally, or “Usher, ” a light occupation of which there are approximately 23, 000 jobs nationally. (Tr. 23–24). From the information above, the ALJ concluded that a finding of not disabled was appropriate. (Tr. 24).

         Plaintiff has exhausted all administrative remedies and now appeals the ALJ’s decision. Plaintiff argues: (1) the ALJ did not properly consider her anemia, chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy, sacroiliac arthritis, and spinal annular tear; (2) the ALJ did not properly connect the evidence to any of the adverse credibility findings and disregarded favorable evidence; and (3) the ALJ did not show alternative work exists in significant numbers in multiple regions of the country, or in the region in which Plaintiff resides. (Pl. Mem. 1).

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the U.S. Code permits judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner’s denial of social security benefits. The district court’s primary function when reviewing a denial of benefits is to determine whether the ALJ’s decision was supported by substantial evidence. See Coffman v. Bowen, 829 F.2d 514, 517 (4th Cir. 1987) (citing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Knox v. Finch, 427 F.2d 919, 920 (5th Cir. 1970)). A factual finding by the ALJ is only binding if the finding was reached by a proper standard or application of the law. See Coffman, 829 F.2d at 517 (citing Myers v. Califano, 611 F.2d 980, 982 (4th Cir. 1980); Williams v. Ribbicoff, 323 F.2d 231, 232 (5th Cir. 1963); Tyler v. Weinberger, 409 F.Supp. 776, 785 (E.D. Va. 1976)).

         Substantial evidence “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) (quoting Smith v. Chater, 99 F.3d 635, 638 (4th Cir. 1996)). Put plainly, substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (quoting Consolidated Edison Co. v. NLRB, 305 U.S. 197, 229 (1938)). However, it has been determined that “[i]n reviewing for substantial evidence, we do not undertake to re-weigh conflicting evidence, make credibility determinations, or substitute our judgement for that of the Secretary.” Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585, 589 (4th Cir. 1996) (citing Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990)). Rather, “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ as to whether a claimant is disabled, the responsibility for that decision falls on the Secretary (or the Secretary’s designate, the ALJ).” Craig, 76 F.3d at 589 (quoting Walker v. Bowen, 834 F.2d 635, 640 (7th Cir. 1987)).

         When considering an application for disability benefits, ALJs use a five-step process to evaluate the merits of the disability claim. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4). At step one, the ALJ asks whether the claimant has been working. At step two, the ALJ determines whether the claimant’s medical impairments meet the severity and duration requirements. At step three, the ALJ determines whether the medical impairments meet or equal an impairment listed in the regulations. At step four, the ALJ determines whether the claimant can perform any past work with the limitations caused by the medical impairments. At step ...


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