United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER
REIDINGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
MATTER is before the Court on the Plaintiff's
Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 9] and the
Commissioner's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. 10].
23, 2013, Karen Buchanan (the “Plaintiff”) filed
for disability and disability insurance benefits under Title
II of the Social Security Act (the “Act”)
alleging an onset date of January 24, 2013. [Transcript
(“T.”) at 96, 122, 272, 294]. On the same date,
the Plaintiff also applied for supplemental security income
payments under Title XVI, again alleging on onset date of
January 24, 2013. [Id. at 274]. Her claims were
initially denied on January 13, 2014, and upon
reconsideration on July 24, 2014. [Id. at 22]. On
the Plaintiff's request, a hearing was held on December
9, 2015 before an Administrative Law Judge
(“ALJ”). [Id. at 42]. On January 14,
2016, the ALJ issued a written decision denying the Plaintiff
benefits, finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within
the meaning of the Act since the alleged onset date of
January 24, 2013. [Id. at 34]. On May 18, 2017, the
Appeals Council denied the Plaintiff's request for
review. [Id. at 1]. The Plaintiff appealed to this
Court, which remanded the matter for further proceedings
before the ALJ. [Id. at 667-68].
October 26, 2018, another hearing was held before the ALJ.
[Id. at 601-29]. On November 29, 2018, the ALJ
issued a written decision denying the Plaintiff benefits,
finding that the Plaintiff was not disabled within the
meaning of the Act since the alleged onset date of January
24, 2013. [Id. at 574-600]. The Appeals Council
denied her request to review the ALJ's decision, thereby
making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the
Commissioner. [Doc. 9-1 at 3]. The Plaintiff has exhausted all
available administrative remedies, and this case is now ripe
for review pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Court's review of a final decision of the Commissioner is
limited to (1) whether substantial evidence supports the
Commissioner's decision, Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971); and (2) whether the Commissioner
applied the correct legal standards. Hays v.
Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 1990).
“When examining [a Social Security Administration]
disability determination, a reviewing court is required to
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, 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012).
“Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a
reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a
conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d
650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (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) (internal
quotation marks omitted).
reviewing for substantial evidence, [the Court should] not
undertake to reweigh conflicting evidence, make credibility
determinations, or substitute [its] judgment for that of the
ALJ.” Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653 (internal
quotation marks and alteration omitted). Rather,
“[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds
to differ, ” the Court defers to the ALJ's
decision. Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). To
enable judicial review for substantial evidence, “[t]he
record should include a discussion of which evidence the ALJ
found credible and why, and specific application of the
pertinent legal requirements to the record evidence.”
Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288, 295 (4th Cir.
2013). It is the duty of the ALJ to “build an accurate
and logical bridge from the evidence to his
conclusion.” Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176,
189 (4th Cir. 2016) (citation omitted). “Without this
explanation, the reviewing court cannot properly evaluate
whether the ALJ applied the correct legal standard or whether
substantial evidence supports his decisions, and the only
recourse is to remand the matter for additional investigation
and explanations.” Mills v. Berryhill, No.
1:16-cv-25-MR, 2017 WL 957542, at *4 (W.D. N.C. Mar. 10,
2017) (Reidinger, J.) (citing Radford, 734 F.3d at
THE SEQUENTIAL EVALUATION PROCESS
“disability” entitling a claimant to benefits
under the Social Security Act, as relevant here, is
“[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.” 42 U.S.C. §
423(d)(1)(A). The Social Security Administration Regulations
set out a detailed five-step process for reviewing
applications for disability. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520,
416.920; Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th
Cir. 2015). “If an applicant's claim fails at any
step of the process, the ALJ need not advance to the
subsequent steps.” Pass v. Chater, 65 F.3d
1200, 1203 (4th Cir. 1995) (citation omitted). The burden is
on the claimant to make the requisite showing at the first
four steps. Id.
one, the ALJ determines whether the claimant is engaged in
substantial gainful activity. If so, the claimant's
application is denied regardless of the medical condition,
age, education, or work experience of the claimant.
Id. (citing 20 C.F.R. § 416.920). If not, the
case progresses to step two, where the claimant must show a
severe impairment. If the claimant does not show any physical
or mental deficiencies, or a combination thereof, which
significantly limit the claimant's ability to perform
work activities, then no severe impairment is established and
the claimant is not disabled. Id.
three, the ALJ must determine whether one or more of the
claimant's impairments meets or equals one of the listed
impairments (“Listings”) found at 20 C.F.R. 404,
Appendix 1 to Subpart P. If so, the claimant is automatically
deemed disabled regardless of age, education or work
experience. Id. If not, before proceeding to step
four, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual
functional capacity (“RFC”). The RFC is an
administrative assessment of “the most” a
claimant can still do on a “regular and continuing
basis” notwithstanding the claimant's medically
determinable impairments and the extent to which those
impairments affect the claimant's ability to perform
work-related functions. Social Security Ruling
(“SSR”) 96-8p; 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1546(c); 404.943(c); 416.945.
four, the claimant must show that his or her limitations
prevent the claimant from performing his or her past work. 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780
F.3d at 634. If the claimant can still perform his or her
past work, then the claimant is not disabled. Id.
Otherwise, the case progresses to the fifth step where the
burden shifts to the Commissioner. At step five, the
Commissioner must establish that, given the claimant's
age, education, work experience, and RFC, the claimant can
perform alternative work which exists in substantial numbers
in the national economy. Id.; Hines v.
Barnhart, 453 F.3d 559, 567 (4th Cir. 2006). “The
Commissioner typically offers this evidence through the
testimony of a vocational expert responding to a hypothetical
that incorporates the claimant's limitations.” 20
C.F.R. §§ 404.1520, 416.920; Mascio, 780
F.3d at 635. If the Commissioner succeeds in shouldering his
burden at step five, the claimant is not disabled and the
application for benefits must be denied. Id.
Otherwise, the claimant is entitled to benefits.